Opinion: Why we need the FA Cup's extra spark
Anthony Martial's third goal against Sheffield United on Wednesday evening had both a short and long-term resonance.
From a broader perspective, it put to bed the unwelcome statistic that no Manchester United player had netted a Premier League hat-trick since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Since the day that a trio of Robin van Persie goals sealed our 20th and most recent title, in fact.
But its short-term impact was that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was able to make the first quintuple substitution in top-flight history. To give Martial, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes et al a rest, because there's no letting up in this manic period, during which English football is striving to finish its two major competitions after the coronavirus lockdown.
And next comes arguably United's most important match since the game's resumption. An FA Cup quarter-final against Norwich that could put the Reds just two steps from a first trophy under the Norwegian. And we all know how important that might be to the future of his bright team.
The FA Cup was Matt Busby's first trophy in 1948. It was the post-Munich side's first silverware, in 1963. In 1990, it offered Alex Ferguson a first step on the ladder to immortality.
Yes, the fabled top-four spot is critically important. But Champions League qualification is recoverable at this stage, even if there is a slip up or two. There are numerous fixtures to be played – and even the Europa League could once again provide a backdoor entrance to the continent's premier competition.
On Saturday, it's do or die. And while the element of the FA Cup's magic that is usually added by fans – and extra tickets for away supporters, in particular – will be missing, the knockout situation should add a lustre to the spectacle that hasn't always been present in the Premier League matches that have been televised so far.
After speaking to several match-going fans from different clubs, it's clear that most are struggling to engage completely with their team's games as wholeheartedly as usual. 'Football is nothing without fans' read a banner on the Stretford End on Wednesday, quoting Busby, and that has been conclusively highlighted since 2019/20 resumed.
The game can still be absorbing, but a crowd is not just part of the atmosphere; it's a huge factor in the contest itself, applying pressure and intensity and provoking the game's tempo and rhythm.
All 15 of United's shots against the Blades Video
All 15 of United's shots against the Blades
🎥🎯 Ole's Reds turned on the style against Sheffield United and registered 15 shots! Watch every single one of them...
But at Carrow Road this weekend, one side has to lose, and that undoubtedly adds an extra factor.
There is no option for United but to give everything to try and reach the last four. And, given Norwich are six points adrift from safety at the bottom the league table, Daniel Farke's men may be quickly swapping their eggs over to the FA Cup basket too.
Cup success might not make up for relegation, but it's a hell of a tonic, as Wigan Athletic could attest, after their famous 2013 triumph over Manchester City.
It all adds up to the most intriguing match since we snapped back into action last Friday against Jose Mourinho's Tottenham. And the way United are playing – which is being hugely sparked by the wit and imagination of new signing Bruno Fernandes – has the fans eager to find out what the team might produce next.
The break is now well and truly over, and the defeat of Sheffield United provided confirmation that our pre-lockdown form was not a misnomer.
Ole's players have picked up right from where they left off, and have been the better side in each of the two games so far.
Now the Reds must pick off Norwich, and ensure momentum is kept sky-high, ahead of what could be a taxing, exhausting end to a season unlike any other.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.