As Manchester United moved a step nearer a cup treble, Fulham mustered a less welcome hat-trick of their own. At a ground with a statue of United’s holy trinity, Fulham instead had their own unholy trinity. On a day when they excelled for 70 minutes, in the end they exited the FA Cup in disgrace. The rarity of three red cards in between the ball being kicked, and at a time when Fulham were still leading, irrevocably altered a quarter-final and enabled United to turn the tie around. Bruno Fernandes and Marcel Sabtizer struck in swift succession with the Portuguese adding an injury-time third as Fulham, like Barcelona and Manchester City before them, led at Old Trafford and then lost.
But not in such extraordinary circumstances. Because if Fulham lost a chance to close in on a first major trophy in their 144-year history, they also lost their heads. Only Willian of the expelled trio could merit any sympathy: he had blocked Jadon Sancho’s shot on the line with his hand in what was almost a brilliant bit of defending. But manager Marco Silva and top scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic saw red for their confrontations with referee Christopher Kavanagh. Until then, Silva’s gameplan had been terrific and executed wonderfully and Mitrovic had produced a superb display. Now fines and bans beckon after each let his side down.
As Fulham finished with nine men and no manager, this became a formality. United, mediocre against 11 men, cruised into a semi-final with Brighton. Their season could yet end with a Manchester derby at Wembley. As it is, their unbeaten run at Old Trafford extends to 23 games but, while this was a 20th win in that time, it long looked like one of the poorest performances since Real Sociedad’s September triumph.
Then Fulham were caught on the counter-attack. Antony released Sancho, who rounded Bernd Leno and shot. The indefatigable Willian had sprinted back from the United half, somehow got back to the goal line and contrived to deflect the shot wide. He pointed to his chest; in the age of VAR, it mattered not.
Referee Kavanagh was sent to the monitor. Before he could even view the replay, Silva had given him enough invective to bring his dismissal. When he did see it, the uncomplaining Willian was duly given the same punishment. Mitrovic barged into the official, either his deeds or his words earned him a third sending off in as many minutes. At the end of it, Fernandes coolly tucked the resulting penalty away.
Fulham had flourished playing 4-2-3-1. Reduced to a 4-3-1 formation, they barely held out for a minute. Luke Shaw crossed, Sabitzer met it with a backheel flick to score his first United goal. Old Trafford was euphoric, Fulham left to lament what might have been.
They had looked the more energetic, perhaps unsurprisingly as it was their third game of March and United’s sixth. In a bright start, Issa Diop had a header tipped over and Willian fizzed a shot wide. As they began the second half at similar speed, David de Gea turned Antonee Robinson’s rising shot over and Willian’s drive just past the post. This time the reward came. While Wout Weghorst laboured ineffectually, the performance of a high-class, old-fashioned No 9 came in a white shirt.
Mitrovic had not scored since 3 January but a powerful, purposeful performance produced a first goal in 10 matches. He converted from close range after a well-worked corner routine. Andreas Pereira, playing better than he often did in a United shirt, took it, Diop met it with a flick and Mitrovic supplied the finish.
United’s inability to cope with Mitrovic had been signalled earlier. Harry Maguire, starting consecutive matches for the first time since August, was booked for wrestling him to the ground: it ruled the centre-back out of the semi-final long before there were more memorable displays of a lack of discipline. After he scored, Mitrovic met another Pereira corner with a header that De Gea clawed away wonderfully and then, seconds later, headed just wide.
At that stage, it seemed as though a second goal may not be needed. United had scarcely threatened, with Leno only repelling the sort of shots he should save. The costly sending off seemed to be that of Casemiro against Southampton last week as Harrison Reed and Joao Palhinha, back from a ban himself, dominated in midfield.
But Ten Hag has made a series of telling substitutions this season and while he seemed short of options on the bench, he conjured another. On came Antony for Scott McTominay, with Sancho moving to the left flank in the subsequent reshuffle.
The turnaround could be attributed to a tactical change. But the emotional element probably played a greater part. The needless actions of Silva and Mitrovic left Fulham more depleted than they would have been, in disarray as Sabitzer scored. Fernandes drilled in a 96th-minute third. And so both clubs will play in London in five weeks’ time but whereas United head for Wembley, Fulham will be stuck at Craven Cottage.