Manchester United 1 (Mata 67) Wolves 0.
Weary Wolves were left cursing VAR yet again as they exited the FA Cup to Manchester United at Old Trafford.
For the second time in this tie, Nuno Espirito Santo’s side had an effort ruled out by the video assistant, this time Pedro Neto after a ricochet off Harry Maguire hit Raul Jimenez’s hand at point-blank range in the 10th minute. Matt Doherty’s header was disallowed for handball at Molineux.
Neto’s strike would have put Wolves 1-0 up in the third-round replay, but instead that was the scoreline to United after Juan Mata scored the only goal in the 67th minute.
It meant United beat Wolves for the first time in five attempts since Nuno led them to the Premier League, and set up a trip to either Watford or Tranmere in the fourth round on Sunday, January 26.
The defeat means Wolves have gone five games without a win in all competitions as they prepare to head to in-form Southampton on Saturday.
They also face runaway leaders Liverpool at home in eight days’ time and United away in the league before their winter break.
One positive was the return of midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White from the bench after missing the last 18 games with a back injury.
There wasn’t much between the teams again, with Wolves goalkeeper John Ruddy denying Daniel James twice and Mata with good saves, while Raul Jimenez finished poorly from a great position, Joao Moutinho had an effort headed off the line and Doherty headed against the post before being ruled offside in what was a much better game than the first tie.
Wolves head coach Nuno kept his promise by fielding not just a strong team but argably his strongest outfield line-up, with Ruddy for Rui Patricio in goal his only change from Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Newcastle.
In a bright opening which saw Adama Traore start on the left side of the Wolves attack for the first time, Ruddy did brilliantly to stick a strong right arm out to divert the ball away from James in the nick of time after Mata sent the winger clean through.
Ruddy’s intervention was needed again, this time to smother at the near post when right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka made a surging run that carried him deep into the Wolves box.
Then Wolves countered and should have been in front after creating two excellent openings.
A brilliant turn from Jimenez following Traore’s left-wing cross took him away from Maguire, Nemanja Matic and Brandon Williams in one delightful movement in the box only to fire a weak left-foot shot straight at goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
More frustration quickly followed for Wolves when Neto finished neatly from 10 yards, thinking he had put the visitors ahead.
But in the build-up, Maguire’s sliding challenge on Jimenez saw the ball hit the Mexicans right hand even though there was no way he could have avoided it, and VAR ruled out the goal.
United had a massive let-off as the incident came after Fred made a hash trying to clear Wan-Bissaka’s throw-in and Matic presented the ball to Jimenez.
Anthony Martial could only fire straight at Ruddy after another through ball presented him with a chance on goal.
Fred then tried his luck from distance with a shot that deflected behind off Leander Dendoncker’s arm and the Brazilian was also on the end of the resulting corner only to lob comfortably over the bar.
Wolves hit back and Joao Moutinho’s chip to the far post was headed off the line from under the bar by Williams after it flicked off Victor Lindelof.
The visitors however had Ruddy to thank when Mata’s fierce drive from inside the box went through Conor Coady’s legs and brought a fine diving save from the goalkeeper.
Wolves thought they had gone desperately close to an opening goal on the half hour when Doherty stooped to head against the post from Moutinho’s chip only for the offside flag to appear.
Jimenez was next to show with a stretching, rising header to meet Traore’s cross with the outside of his right foot but the striker could only direct his effort straight at Romero.
United got behind Wolves’ high defensive line again just before half-time when Mata spotted the run of the pacy James, but Ruddy did superbly to race some way off his line to block the winger’s hoked shot after he got the wrong side of Romain Saiss.
United started the second half slightly better than Wolves and Mata struck a rising effort straight at Ruddy before James dragged a left-footed effort wide after latching onto Williams’s pass and turning away from Doherty.
At the other end, Neves and Jimenez fired comfortably over the bar in quick succession, the latter from out wide with little support in the box.
United made a double substitution in the 64th minute when Marcus Rashford and Andreas Pereira replaced James and Mason Greenwood.
And the hosts got the only goal in their next attack when Mata gently lifted the ball to the side of Ruddy and into the empty net after Martial waited before playing him through as Saiss played the scorer just onside.
Neto had had a match-long tussle with United’s highly-rated left back Williams, but he had run himself into the ground, and, when he overhit a pass to Traore sprinting through the middle in the 71st minute, that was his last piece of the action as Gibbs-White replaced him.
Another to leave the field was Rashford, after a challenge from the side by Doherty left the England striker struggling with what appeared to be a lower back problem. He lasted barely 16 minutes before being forced off to be replaced by Jesse Lingard.
Neves got his angles wrong again when he lashed a few inches over the bar from 25 yards from Moutinho’s passed corner.
That was perhaps evidence of the weariness now creeping into Wolves’ game as they looked increasingly unlikely to break United down.
The visitors played too many backwards passes and didn’t look sharp enough to penetrate United, or get enough men forwards when they were chasing the game.
A wayward cross by Jimenez, which was too strong for Gibbs-White at the far post, summed up how things were going, before dangerman Traore was briefly hurt and eventually forced off to be replaced by rookie Oskar Buur.
With Wolves finally throwing men forward in the five minutes of time added on, United countered and Pereira fired straight at Ruddy from Martial’s pass.
But Nuno’s side had worn themselves out and there was a certain inevitability about the scoreline when the final whistle came.
United (4-2-3-1): Romero; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Williams; Fred, Matic; Mata, Greenwood (Pereira 64), James (Rashford 64, Lingard 80); Martial.
Subs not used: Grant, Jones, Dalot, Chong.
Booked: Fred (37), Maguire (74).
Wolves (3-4-3): Ruddy; Dendoncker, Coady (c), Saiss; Doherty, Neves, Moutinho, Jonny (Vinagre 75); Traore (Buur 88), Jimenez, Neto (Gibbs-White 71).
Subs not used: Patricio, Bennett, Kilman, Ashley-Seal.
Booked: Neto (59), Dendoncker (84).
Referee: Kevin Friend (Leicester).