A pair of close range headers, late in each half, were enough to decide a tight FA Cup quarterfinal on a wintry night at Old Trafford.
With Jose Mourinho looking for a response following his Manchester United side’s shock exit in the Champions League midweek, Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matic delivered the key contributions to unlock a Brighton side that had largely matched their illustrious opponents.
Brighton’s most famous FA Cup adventure ended in defeat in the final against United in 1983 and the Seagulls’ fans turned up en masse for a late kick-off with dreams of reaching the same stage.
While some changes were unavoidable, Chris Hughton took an opportunity to freshen up the side for the quarter final ahead of the international break. Ulloa, Locadia and March came in for Murray, Izquierdo and the suspended Knockaert while Tim Krul continued his cup run in goal. Suttner and Kayal stepped in for Bong and Stephens who both failed to recover in time.
Clear chances were few and far between in the early going. The skies opened moments before kickoff to drop a fresh blanket of snow on the pitch and it looked like both sides struggled to make incisive passes in the conditions. Whenever United looked like creating something meaningful, Brighton’s trademark resolute shape shut it down. At the other end, Brighton had positive possession but the final ball was lacking; the best chance fell to Lewis Dunk with a free header from a corner midway through the half.
For all of Brighton’s hard work to keep United out, it was a simple goal after 37 minutes that broke the deadlock. Nemanja Matic received the ball wide of the penalty box and, spotting Lukaku peeling away at the far post, he curled it in. The Belgian striker lost his marker Lewis Dunk and nodded in from all of a yard to send Old Trafford wild. It meant that Lukaku had now scored 12 in 11 FA Cup games but, more importantly, put his side one step closer to a semi-final at Wembley.
Hughton rallied his troops during the halftime break and they started the second half the brighter side with Jurgen Locadia in particular looking a threat. The Dutch striker has had limited opportunities since he became the Albion’s record signing in January; for this game he was deployed wide on the left in the role often filled by Jose Izquierdo. When Brighton were defending Locadia was wide left to help a midfield five but, unlike the Colombian, when the Seagulls were in attack he was drifting central to partner Ulloa.
Locadia was causing United’s defenders problems as he kept appearing in space time after time. First he drilled a low shot from the edge of the box that Sergio Romero got down well to smother. Moments later the Dutchman controlled a cross with his back to goal and, on the spin, hit a powerful drive that was destined for the top left corner had Romero not got his fingertips to the ball. Not long afterwards Solly March picked him out at the far post but, from a tight angle, he was unable to direct a powerful header on target.
Mourinho has drawn criticism for his United side’s defensive mindset and, as Brighton grew in to the game, the home fans grew restless fearing an equaliser. The away side would go on to regret those missed chances.
After 83 minutes, Ashley Young whipped in a freekick from 30 yards towards the back post where Matic, who had created the opener, turned goalscorer as he lost his marker and nodded in from an almost identical position as Lukaku had. Lewis Dunk, who many Brighton fans felt deserved an England call up, slipped as the ball was delivered and will be disappointed to have lost both goalscorers at the decisive moments.
This second goal put the tie out of Brighton’s reach. Hughton’s men continued to push - Pascal Gross had a couple of good chances late on - but United held them at arm’s length to see out the tie in relatively comfortable fashion.
Hughton will perhaps be disappointed not to have taken advantage of an underperforming United side but, as he heads into the international break, he will have no distractions from the crucial run-in. With nine games remaining, it is completely in Brighton’s hands as they look to pick up the remaining points needed to secure their key aim for the season; a second year in the top flight.