Spluttering Manchester United were forced to settle for a dour 0-0 draw at Wolves in the FA Cup third round, while holders Manchester City started their bid to retain the trophy with a 4-1 victory against Port Vale on Saturday.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s troubled side didn’t manage a single shot on target in the latest in a growing list of underwhelming displays.
Easily beaten by Arsenal in the Premier League on Wednesday, United once again struggled to find any momentum and now face an unwanted replay at Old Trafford later in January.
Solskjaer made seven changes at Molineux with the League Cup semi-final first leg against Manchester City looming on Tuesday.
Knocked out by Wolves in the FA Cup quarter-finals last season, disjointed United nearly fell behind when Matt Doherty’s volley was superbly turned away by Sergio Romero.
Brandon Williams had a strong penalty appeal rejected by VAR after the United left-back tumbled following a challenge with Leander Dendoncker.
United substitute Marcus Rashford hit the bar with his first touch, but Wolves nearly won it in the closing moments as Raul Jimenez smashed against a post, leaving Solskjaer’s men with just two wins from their last five matches.
At the Etihad Stadium, City boss Pep Guardiola made seven changes, but Oleksandr Zinchenko got the scoring started against fourth-tier Vale after 20 minutes.
Port Vale striker Tom Pope had memorably mocked John Stones last year, claiming he would love to play against him after being underwhelmed by the City defender’s performance during an England match.
And with Stones returning for City after a month out with a hamstring injury, the 34-year-old Pope backed up his social media taunts by equalising with a glancing header in the 35th minute.
Sergio Aguero restored order when he fired City back in front with his 15th goal of the season three minutes before half-time.
Harwood-Bellis sealed the win from Stones’ flick in the 58th minute and Phil Foden got the fourth in the 76th minute.
– Villa, Brighton crash out –
Aston Villa and Brighton suffered embarrassing exits as the Premier League clubs paid the price for making a raft of team changes.
Villa are languishing just above the relegation zone after a difficult first season back in the top-flight and boss Dean Smith prioritised that survival battle with nine changes against second tier Fulham.
Anthony Knockaert gave Fulham the lead at Craven Cottage with a 54th minute curler as the former Brighton forward grabbed his first goal since September.
Anwar El Ghazi equalised for Villa in the 63rd minute, but the understudies couldn’t hold on as Harry Arter won it with a 30-yard thunderbolt with 16 minutes left.
Midfielder Arter had only been on the pitch for one minute and 45 seconds before scoring his first goal since November 2017.
“The game was won by two wonder-goals,” Smith said. “I don’t like losing in any competition, but everyone could see this wasn’t top of our priority list, because we have had injuries to three key players.”
Brighton endured the same fate as Villa as Albion boss Graham Potter made seven changes from their New Year’s Day draw against Chelsea and second tier Sheffield Wednesday took advantage with a 1-0 win at the Amex Stadium.
Adam Reach blasted Wednesday into the fourth round with a deflected long-range strike in the 65th minute.
“Credit to Sheffield Wednesday, they deserve to go through. We huffed and puffed but our second-half performance was disappointing. We need to do better,” Potter said.
Watford blew a three-goal lead in a dramatic 3-3 draw against third tier strugglers Tranmere, while Newcastle were held to a 1-1 draw by League One minnows Rochdale.
Leicester advanced with a 2-0 win against Wigan thanks to Tom Pearce’s own goal and Harvey Barnes’ strike at the King Power Stadium.
The pick of Sunday’s ties sees Liverpool face Merseyside rivals Everton at Anfield, while Arsenal host Leeds on Monday.