KEIR RADNEDGE at WEMBLEY —- Popular shorthand labelled the FA Cup semi-final between Everton and Manchester United not so much in terms of a sprint towards a trophy as a march to the sack.
The latter prospect is the one now facing Roberto Martinez, rather than United’s Louis Van Gaal. The Spaniard’s tenure at Everton remained a tale of promise unfulfilled after a 2-1 defeat at Wembley.
United deserved a half-time lead with a goal from Marouane Fellaini but Everton fought back with spirit, even seeing Romelu Lukaku miss a penalty before levelling through a Chris Smalling own goal.
Ultimately however, as extra time loomed, so Everton’s central defence fell apart and Anthony Martial – outstanding throughout – pounced for a winner which propelled United, dramatically, into their record-equalling 19th FA Cup Final and a first at the ‘new’ Wembley.
Van Gaal summed up: “It’s fantastic when you see the joy in the eyes of the players and also of the fans. I think we deserved to go to the final. We had so many chances, we could have finished it much earlier.”
Van Gaal’s recast team began as favourites. History and form was on their side: 11 FA Cup triumphs and a comfortable 2-0 midweek league victory over Crystal Palace. Everton offered five victories, the last in 1995 (albeit over United) and a miserable 4-0 defeat in midweek by Liverpool.
Yet Everton might have opened the scoring. Belgium spearhead Lukaku earned the luck of the bounce from a long clearance by keeper Joel Robles, outpaced the United defence then rounded De Gea only to see his scoop for goal headed off the line by Wayne Rooney.
The Everton fans’ jeers for their one-time wonderboy were accentuated immediately as he loped down to the other end and provided a curling left-wing free kick which Smalling headed narrowly wide.
Rooney, recently returned from injury in a senior’s more reflective role behind attack, was at the heart of most of United’s best work. He provided the assist in the 20th minute when Anthony Martial blazed over.
Lukaku remained a threat on the break but the more intention creative football and chances were all coming from United who duly took the the lead in the 34th minute.
The scorer was another Everton old boy, Maroune Fellaini, who popped the ball home from close range after Martial had outpaced Everton’s defence on the left and pulled the ball back in classic fashion.
Everton were flattered by the single-goal difference. But it would be a different story in the second half.
They raised an early flurry or two without troubling De Gea but, in the 56th minute, benefited from the generosity of referee Anthony Taylor who awarded them a penalty after judging that Tim Fosu-Mensah had brought down Ross Barkley.
Justice was apparently done when De Gea dived wide to his right to beat away Lukaku’s fiercely-struck kick.
In fact Everton might have had more right to a penalty minutes later when Aaron Lennon crossed from the right and Tom Cleverly claimed he had been impeded by Jesse Lingard as he fired high and wide.
United could then have had a penalty of their own when Fellaini’s close-range effort was kept out of goal by the outstretched arm of the falling Phil Jagielka.
But the penalty award had breathed into Everton’s players and awakened fans a sudden sense of belief that they, too, could play some football.
They raised their tempo, aided by the arrival of Gerard Deulofeu on the right instead f the ineffective Aaron Lennon. In the 69th minute Deulofeu panicked United with a stabbed cross from the right and Smalling, wrong-footed, flipped the ball back past his own goalkeeper.
Extra time loomed, and Everton would have deserved it, when Martial burst into a mile-wide gap between England stoppers John Stones and Phil Jagielka and rifled home the winner.