FA CUP: BLACKBURN ROVERS 1: MANCHESTER UNITED 2 REDS LINE UP CHELSEA IN NEXT ROUND
With an hour gone and Manchester United locked in a fifth-round stalemate with Blackburn Rovers in the Lancashire drizzle, Jose Mourinho turned to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba.
It was a power play, a graphic demonstration of what separates these two clubs in the modern era, 22 years after Blackburn pipped United to the Premier League title.
Mourinho’s substitutes were the most expensive in the history of the FA Cup, a bench worth a total of £192million even when you consider that Ibrahimovic cost nothing.
Blackburn (4-4-1-1): Steele 6; Lowe 7, Greer 6.5, Lenihan 6, Williams 6.5; Feeney 6.5 (Mahoney 73, 6), Mulgrew 7, Guthrie 6.5 (Tomlinson 81), Conway 6.5; Emnes 7.5; Graham 7 (Stokes 77, 6)
Subs not used: Raya, Hendrie, Nyambe, Brown
Goalscorers: Graham 17
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Romero 6.5; Young 6, Smalling 6, Rojo 5.5, Darmian 6; Carrick 6, Herrera 5.5; Lingard 5 (Pogba 62, 7), Mkhitaryan 8, Martial 5 (Ibrahimovic 62, 7); Rashford 6.5 (Mata 89)
Subs not used: Henderson, Bailly, Shaw, Schweinsteiger
Goalscorers: Rashford 27, Ibrahimovic 75
Booked: Lingard, Young
Referee: Martin Atkinson 7
Star man: Henrikh Mkhitaryan
We were rich in solutions,’ admitted Mourinho afterwards, which was an apt choice of words. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luke Shaw and Eric Bailly couldn’t get a game. Juan Mata was held back until the 89th minute.
Ibrahimovic and Pogba would probably have been kept in reserve had the occasion not required a little quality to separate the FA Cup holders from the Championship strugglers, whose entire matchday squad cost an estimated £450,000.
Owen Coyle’s side put up quite a fight and took a deserved early lead through Danny Graham.
But a few miles down the M65 from where a fairytale unfolded for Lincoln City at Turf Moor on Saturday, hopes of another upset were blown away by United’s big guns.
Pogba and Ibrahimovic had only been on the pitch for a matter of seconds when the £89m man pulled the ball back for Ander Herrera, whose cross to the far post invited a finishing touch into the open goal from the Swede.
Ibrahimovic was caught cold and the chance vanished. But with talent like that in reserve, it was always likely to make a difference and so it proved in the 75th minute.
A trait of their partnership this season has been Pogba’s ability to pick out Ibrahimovic with passes over the top from midfield, and he did it again here with a 30-yard chip beyond the Blackburn defence.
Ibrahimovic had stayed just onside and even had time to spin full circle as he waited for the ball to bounce before steering it first-time past Jason Steele into the far corner.
It was his 24th goal of a magnificent first season in English football and his 18th in the last 20 games. Enough to put United in the quarter-finals again.
‘I knew that he would be a very important player for us,’ said Mourinho. ‘People learn how to play together. The connection between quality players any time is a help.’
Mourinho was just as relieved that he does not have a replay to shoehorn into a congested fixture list.
United fly to France on Monday for Wednesday’s second leg of their Europa League tie against Saint-Etienne before facing Southampton in the EFL Cup final at Wembley on Sunday.
Mourinho was happier with the attitude on Sunday than when his team won in Europe last Thursday night, but the performance was still somewhat lacking.
Blackburn were worth their opening goal, fashioned by the impressive Marvin Emnes in the 17th minute.
The Dutchman made a crossfield run before checking inside Marcos Rojo and catching United’s defence flat-footed with a clever reverse pass for Graham.
The 31-year-old striker didn’t hesitate as he steered the ball beyond Sergio Romero. Ewood Park erupted as Graham slid on his knees in celebration. Mourinho applauded what he later described as a ‘brilliant goal’. It was the first one United had conceded in 471 minutes.
However, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is proving an effective No 10 and it was no surprise he created United’s equaliser in the 27th minute.
The Armenian spotted Marcus Rashford’s run and picked out the youngster with an exquisite pass with the outside of his right foot. Rashford rounded Steele before scoring into an empty net.
Yet this contest was in the balance right up until Mourinho decided to play his aces.
‘Blackburn made it difficult for us,’ he said. ‘They probably deserved to go back to Old Trafford but it’s better for them so they can focus on a very difficult Championship.’
Rovers almost snatched a replay in the 86th minute when Romero made a fantastic double save from Connor Mahoney and Emnes.
‘We did enough to get another shot at it,’ said Coyle. ‘But when United bring on players like that and I bring on two kids from the academy, that’s the difference.’
Former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson was in attendance for the FA Cup fifth-round clash at Ewood Park