If a single game epitomized the 2016/17 of Manchester United, it was Blackburn away in the cup.
United fielded a side with seven changes from their previous game at Old Trafford, with one eye on the second leg in France – despite their more than sufficient three goal lead on aggregate gained from the first leg in Manchester.
The Red Devils, lived up to their recent reputation of not playing to their full potential in the first half, and duly paid the price after the opening goal well worked by Blackburn Rovers as the combination of Danny Graham and Marvin Emnes managed to unlock the visitors’ back four to score the first goal that United conceded in six games in all competitions. Mourinho applauded the brilliance, lamenting his side’s lack of diligence and complacency laden display until that moment – only exacerbated by Blackburn’s energetic front two.
United seemed to look disjointed for most of that first half. But it was always going to take one moment of brilliance from the visitors and the Armenian midfielder threaded an inch-perfect through ball sending Rashford one on one against the keeper which the teenager converted, making it his 3rd goal in the FA Cup this season and a vital one at that. As the half-time whistle was blown, United only had two shots on target out of seven attempts and looked desperate for changes in personnel.
The second-half arrived and a few minutes in, Mourinho made two changes which not only strengthened the team but also improved their fortunes. The ineffectual duo of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial were taken off for the most influential pair at the club in Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the away side went up several gears with immediate effect.
Ibrahimovic could have scored the second goal with his first touch after a mis-hit Herrera attempt whooshed past the 35-year old in full stretch. United upped their attempts with the full-backs getting more involved as Ibrahimovic held the ball up better than Rashford, with his towering strength and presence in front of the box, thereby bringing his teammates into play – most importantly Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The persistence was finally translated into something more tangible, as United’s highest goal scorer in all competitions, Ibrahimovic scored his 24th goal of the campaign – side footing a lofted pass from Paul Pogba calmly into the far corner of the net.
This was the Swede’s 20th goal in the last 18 games and no player in Europe has scored more than the Manchester United forward since the start of 2015/16. It has been a phenomenal season for Zlatan, a goal return that looks nothing short of impressive for a player in the twilight of his career, at the top level in a new country.
The game again showed the impact of a successful transfer window on United with three of the four players involved in the two goals they scored today joining the club only in the summer of 2016. As Manchester United sealed their progression to the Quarter-finals, it only went on to further establish the significance that Pogba and Ibrahimovic in particular had on Mourinho’s side.
Paul Pogba has not only contributed to a chunk of the goals that United have scored this season, but also begun to have an all-round influence on every result. Against Blackburn, the 23-year old created more chances (3) & played more final 3rd passes (24) than any opposition player on the pitch despite only playing 32 minutes.
The ultimate reward for seeing off a gritty Championship side is a Quarter-final draw against champions-elect Chelsea. United will travel to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea as Mourinho will take his resilient Red Devils to his former club four months after a 4-0 humiliation in the Premier League at the hands of Antonio Conte’s high flyers. The Portuguese was quick to offer his thoughts on an evidently difficult draw versus Chelsea which will be played in the first week of March, potentially sandwiched between two Europa League ties in the last 16.
United have only suffered one loss in the last 24 games in all competitions and have grown increasingly tough physically and mentally since the 4-0 drubbing in London. Only time will provide a fair reflection as to how far they have come in these four months – when they are asked to defend the FA Cup against the best team left in the competition in their own backyard.
But for now, as rightly and ceaselessly sung by the 7200 away fans at Ewood Park, Jose’s playing the way United should.