With 117 minutes gone and the score 1-1, Harry Maguire leapt for a header in the Norwich City box and was bumped to the ground. United’s centre-back had barely got to his feet before he was down again in the six-yard box, writhing and stretching to poke a loose ball into the net after Paul Pogba had crossed back into the crush of exhausted human flesh.
Norwich, down to 10 men, had no time to restart their engines. As the final whistle blew both sets of players sank to the Carrow Road turf. A round of weary hugs commemorated the fact Manchester United had won this FA Cup quarter final 2-1, and deservedly so on the balance of a slow-burn muddle of a game.
It took 43 minutes for one team to almost have shot on target. With half-time looming Todd Cantwell produced a neat little swivel to feed Lukas Rupp inside the box. His shot was well blocked by Maguire sliding in.
The lassitude was understandable. What’s stranger than a Premier League game in an empty stadium in late June? How about an FA Cup quarter-final in an empty stadium in late June.
United came here and made eight changes, with Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood among those dropped to the bench: sensible given the flood of games, but a note of disappointment for those intrigued by the growing fluency of United’s attacking play.
The changes did seem to break the flow. United’s front four, with Odion Ighalo the rapier, was static from the start. Steadily, the red shirts settled into a rhythm of slow lateral passing. Fred saw a lot of the ball, although this did not always feel like the kind of relationship the ball’s closest friends would necessarily encourage.
“Keep moving it,” a voice shouted from the touchline as Maguire doodled around in midfield.
For Norwich, Cantwell and Teemu Pukki returned, a measure of their entropic league season, and pleasant surprise for the dear old FA Cup, restored here to the status of A-list competition. And Carrow Road was a gentle kind of place in the evening sunshine, with the usual sloganeering tarpaulins stretched across its empty low rise stands, and a nice rainbow-coloured tribute to Justin Fashanu at one end.
Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata combined nicely once or twice. Jamal Lewis began with a sense of long‑striding adventure down the Norwich right.
Steadily, though, Norwich sat deep and formed a tight line of entwined midfield and defence. United’s movements lacked any fluency. It was left to the drinks break to provide a rare show of animation as Daniel Farke, dressed in a shiny black plastic raincoat, pounded his fist and demanded greater urgency. Soon afterwards Kenny McLean robbed Mata, rumbled forward and smashed a shot high on to the plastic sheets behind the goal.
It was that kind of first half. For long periods nothing happened, energetically. Then, for a while, nothing happened more slowly. In between nothing happened in more subtle, imperceptible ways. The break seemed to come as a relief to both teams, as it has so often in these midsummer ghost games.
There was no lack of urgency from the players. It is just football’s fate to chew its way through this bizarro world. And six minutes after half-time something did finally happen, as United opened the scoring.
Luke Shaw made the incision, driving down the right and crossing. Mata seemed to produce a clever touch over two defenders, although replays showed the ball came off Max Aarons. Ighalo had been left unmarked. He flicked it into the net past Tim Krul with the outside of his foot, an easy, expert finish.
This was Ighalo’s fifth goal, all of them in cup competitions He has been a shrewd hire, a smart, experienced player to do exactly this kind of job. It was, on balance, a deserved lead.
But the goal brought a surge of urgency from Norwich, who should have scored just after the hour. Ben Godfrey somehow cleared the ball off the line with his shoulder after a low free-kick from Emi Buendía seemed to have been glanced into his own goal by Bruno Fernandes.
On 75 minutes, as Norwich began to zing the ball about in United’s half, Cantwell produced a fine equaliser. Onel Hernández laid the ball inside and Cantwell’s shot zinged into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.
The game had finally begun to hum a little. Timm Klose was sent off for bringing down Ighalo as he bore down on goal but United were unable to find a way through in six minutes of stoppage time.