Zlatan Ibrahimovic steers Man United into FA Cup quarters
Swede caps a fine week with a late winner as Blackburn beaten at sodden Ewood Park
Zlatan Ibrahmiovic celebrates with one of 7,000 travelling Manchester United fans after his late winner at Blackburn. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty
There was a point in this match when Manchester United, the holders and 11-time winners, were threatened with the possibility of their first away defeat to lower-league opposition in this competition since Ron Atkinson took a team to Bournemouth, then of the Third Division, in 1984. They were losing, against the team second from bottom of the Championship, and in those deceptive moments the supporters of Blackburn Rovers might have felt a nostalgic glow for happier times.
It did not last long, however. The harsh reality for Blackburn, under the ownership of the Venkys, is that they face the strong possibility of third-tier football next season for the first time since 1980. The protest banners against the club’s absent owners hung from virtually every road bridge on the M65.
Almost a third of the attendance made up by away fans and, barring a nervous 10 minutes or so after Danny Graham had given Blackburn the lead, it was probably no surprise that José Mourinho’s team went on to navigate a route into the quarter-finals once Henrikk Mkhitaryan’s beautifully weighted pass had sent Marcus Rashford running clear to score their equaliser.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba are a pretty useful pair tto bring on as second-half substitutes and United’s superiority eventually paid off when those two combined for the game’s decisive moment a quarter of an hour from the end of normal time. Pogba clipped the pass over the top and Ibrahimovic’s first-time finish, once he had and waited for the ball to drop, was expertly placed into the far corner.
Ibrahimovic now has 23 goals in his first six months in English football, as well as another in the Community Shield, and the Swede is making a decent case to be considered for the individual awards at the end of the season.
In the process, his latest scoring contribution also ensured United avoided adding another replay in an already congested fixture list. Blackburn also have different priorities, starting against Burton Albion on Friday, but they tried manfully to hold out once the game became a story of near-unremitting United pressure in the second half.
For a team that has spent the last two months in the Championship’s relegation zone, Owen Coyle’s side also displayed a level of confidence that seemed to surprise their opponents in the opening stages. Liam Feeney looked keen to impress on the right and Marvin Emnes had already fired in one attempt at goal before eluding Marcos Rojo to set up the opening goal.
Emnes beat his opponent with an ease that ought to trouble Mourinho and Graham, not exactly a striker renowned for his pace, moved away from the flat-footed Chris Smalling to score on the run with a diagonal shot, left to right, past Sergio Romero.
Mourinho had given David de Gea the weekend off and taken a calculated gamble in other areas of the team, with Ibrahimovic and Pogba among the substitutes, until just after the hour-mark when Jesse Lingard and Anthony
Martial made way. Luke Shaw was also on the bench on a day when Mourinho preferred to use Matteo Darmian in the left-back position and Ashley Young on the other side. Shaw must feel like an increasingly peripheral figure in the Mourinho regime but United’s full-backs were among their better performers and their willingness to join the away team’s attacks was a prominent feature.
The shock of Graham’s goal jolted United into life and from that point onwards they started to pass the ball with more authority. Rashford took his equaliser splendidly, taking the ball past the goalkeeper, Jason Steele, before slipping the ball into an empty net, and the pass that preceded it, from the outside of Mkhitaryan’s right boot was a reminder about the imbalance of talent between the two sides.
The double substitution, bringing on the world’s most expensive player and a 22-goal striker, was another. Rashford and Mkhitaryan took over in the wide positions, with Ibrahimovic in his customary position through the middle. At that stage, Blackburn’s early sense of adventure had been replaced by a desire simply to remain level and try to catch their opponents on a breakaway. The vast majority of the play was towards the Darwen End and finally Ibrahimovic broke through.