Viva Garnacho! Manchester United magician outshines Antony to send Erik ten Hag message
Alejandro Garnacho finds himself in the unenviable position of being behind perhaps the planet’s most in-form footballer in pushing for a place in the Manchester United side.
Come Sunday’s trip to Liverpool in the Premier League, Marcus Rashford will no doubt be restored to Erik ten Hag’s starting lineup and, unless the Dutchman rearranges the pieces on his chessboard, Garnacho may well find himself back on the bench.
But as the 18-year-old left the pitch in stoppage time here to a chorus of “Viva Garnacho”, the terrace chant not so long ago reserved for a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, he could reflect on a good night’s work and a case well made.
Just as he had at Fulham in the Premier League before Christmas, Garnacho came up with a clutch late winner, his superb strike beating Alphonse Areola to put United 2-1 up in the tie before Fred’s stoppage-time clincher secured passage into the FA Cup quarter-finals with a 3-1 win.
West Ham had led through Said Benrahma’s brilliant goal, but on a high after Sunday’s Carabao Cup success, the home side came roaring back, Casemiro seeing a header disallowed before Nayef Aguerd’s own goal levelled the score, from which point there looked only one winner.
With Rashford one of six players benched three days on from Wembley, Ten Hag made clear that while chasing a quadruple of sorts this season remains a firm and lofty aim, this competition is - or at least was, before tonight’s quarter-final draw offered up another home tie against Fulham - the lesser of three outstanding priorities.
West Ham were the better side in the first half and deserved their lead when it came on 54 minutes, but were ultimately punished for not making more of their superiority. Michail Antonio spurned golden chances either side of the opener before the staggered introductions of Rashford, Casemiro and Lisandro Martinez helped turn the tide.
It was Garnacho, though, who had been United’s brightest attacking spark all night and not merely for his bleach-blonde hair as the teenager outshone £100million team-mate Antony, who was ineffectual on the other wing.
The youngster did his defensive duty well, too, tracking the overlapping Ben Johnson and went close twice with curling efforts, one parried away by Areola, another drifting past the crossbar.
They would prove mere sighters, however, as with extra-time beckoning, he hit the spot, net bulging, Old Trafford in full voice, and the sense unavoidable that, little more than 72 hours after its last, this is a club on the trophy trail once more.
The more likely outcome for an hour though seemed that West Ham might continue on one of those strange seasons during which a side's cup and league form come in illogical contrast as Benrahma's strike threatened a second knockout success here in as many seasons.
In fact, it was on this very ground, in this very fixture, in this very competition 22 years ago that Fabien Barthez performed his infamous human statue act, standing arm aloft in faux offside appeal as the unperturbed Paolo Di Canio slotted home to earn a famous 1-0 win.
The United backline’s tribute for West Ham’s opener here was not quite perfect nor so prolonged, and Benrahma had rather more to do to complete the scene than his Italian predecessor. But the parallels were there and the immediate outcome the same, United waiting for a whistle that never came and a Hammers forward taking full advantage.
The source of United’s hesitancy was a ball that, in fairness, appeared to have gone out of play on the touchline before being poked by Tomas Soucek back to Emerson, who was alert as others slept to feed Benrahma for his wonderful finish high into the far corner.
Whether confident in their convictions or, like Barthez, employing a hopeful bluff, United’s players lined up as if expecting a throw-in to restart, but VAR saw no reason to get involved as the huge travelling contingent were given reason for a second celebration by completion of the check.
Some camera angles appeared to show plenty of grass between ball and line while others were inconclusive. In any case, Garnacho’s greatest gift might well have come in sparing us from the gleeful wisdom of living-room physicists with their beach balls and A4 paper, as well as another tedious VAR post-mortem.