BLACKBURN, England — Three thoughts from Manchester United’s 2-1 win at Blackburn, which sees them advance to the FA Cup quarterfinals.
1. Man United substitutes get the job done
There was half an hour remaining when Jose Mourinho signalled his determination to avoid a replay. There was a quarter of an hour to go when Manchester United’s deluxe replacements powered the holders into the last eight of the FA Cup.
Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic came on together. They linked up again, albeit separated by 50 yards, when the France international showed his passing range with a wonderful long ball to find his teammate up top and in such space behind the Blackburn back four that he could wait for the ball to bounce, spin and place a half-volley into the far corner of the net. It was Ibrahimovic’s 18th goal in his last 20 games and prompted choruses that United are bound for Wembley. So they are, in next week’s EFL Cup final, but they may well return in the FA Cup.
As Blackburn performed with such determination to make a mockery of their lowly league position and United played below themselves in what was far from their best performance, it made for a competitive cup tie. But Mourinho guards against shocks, both in fielding experienced, physically powerful sides and in having reserves of quality.
He used them at the expense of Jesse Lingard, who had prospered as a substitute against St. Etienne in the Europa League, and Anthony Martial, who flickered and was also replaced. Other starters had better days, with Marcus Rashford ensuring United only trailed for 10 minutes.
Sergio Romero had kept six consecutive clean sheets, but there was no seventh here as he was beaten after 595 minutes without conceding a goal. Blackburn’s strikers combined cleverly, Marvin Emnes eluding Marcos Rojo’s attentions and Danny Graham escaping Chris Smalling’s to thrash in an unstoppable shot. Briefly, Rovers thought they had scored a second, substitute Anthony Stokes putting the ball in the net after Romero had made a double save from him and Emnes, but he was rightly ruled offside and United advanced.
2. Rashford takes his rare chance at striker
It looked the goal of a natural finisher. Rashford showed preternatural composure to take the ball around Jason Steele and slot his shot into the unguarded net. He scarcely looked a player who had failed to score in 23 of his previous 24 appearances.
If the most remarkable part of the goal was its creation, a lovely, outside-of-the-boot pass by Henrikh Mkhitaryan that split the Blackburn defence with enviable delicacy, United’s equaliser was also notable for the scorer. Rashford was given his chance. He took it.
And opportunities, at least in his preferred position, have been few and far between. Last season’s breakout star has suffered because of the excellence and relentlessness of Ibrahimovic, who started 32 of United’s first 40 games this season. Rashford has shone in moments on the flanks, but rarely scored; his only goals since September were the two against Reading that he mustered as a striker. Until here at Ewood Park, when the top scorer was granted a rare rest — albeit for an hour until Ibrahimovic came on — and Rashford moved back to the left.
The teenager had been on the fringes of the game before levelling. Yet part of the striker’s art is being clinical when, at times, they have barely had a touch.
If it was an uplifting occasion for one of United’s youngsters, it amounted to a depressing day for another. Mourinho is adamant that Luke Shaw will not leave Old Trafford in the summer. Nor, however, does he seem willing to pick him. This seemed an ideal opportunity to give the England international just a second start since November. Instead, he was left on the bench, and while Matteo Darmian was preferred at left-back, the Italy international could have been chosen in his preferred position on the right. Ashley Young, a winger for much of his career, began on that side of the defence.
If Shaw is not trusted to face Blackburn, it is hard to see when his chance may come. The same applies to Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose sole start of the season came in the FA Cup fourth round against Wigan. He marked it with a goal on that day, but was nevertheless on the bench at Ewood Park.
3. Blackburn fans protest even after fine goal
It is not the normal reaction to taking the lead against United. A minute after Graham’s goal, a chant began in the Ronnie Clayton End. “We want Venkys out,” insisted the Blackburn fans. Banners on bridges on the way into town carried the same message. The family, who bought a top-10 Premier League club and could soon be presiding over a League One outfit, have been disastrous owners.
This was a chance for the fans to bring their grievances to a greater audience. It was also a throwback to the days when Rovers hosted United on an annual basis. Ewood Park was almost full, a rarity in itself given that the ground has only been at 38 percent capacity in the Championship this season. Admittedly, it was swelled by a vocal contingent of travelling supporters.
But the Blackburn faithful have had too few reasons to attend. Those who do have ample evidence the club has been misrun. Over the last 18 months, one of the Championship’s better sides has been broken up and sold off with Rudy Gestede, Tom Cairney, Jordan Rhodes, Ben Marshall and Shane Duffy replaced by inferior players. Owners who have only ever made one decent managerial appointment sacked the coach in question, Gary Bowyer, and after Paul Lambert’s brief stint in charge, plumped for one associated with their greatest foes.
Owen Coyle’s past at Burnley made him an unpopular choice in a corner of east Lancashire, where local rivalry tends to be fierce and unforgiving. His has been an undistinguished reign in a career of diminishing returns. It has yielded just seven wins in 31 league games, leaving Rovers second from bottom in the Championship, and has made the manager the subject of rumours that his job is in grave danger.
Even though this ended in defeat, it may earn him a reprieve. A cut-price team performed with spirit and no little skill. It was a reminder that, a few years ago, Coyle teams fused belief with attacking intent. If Rovers had done so more often in the league, his position would not be in such peril and the owners’ errors would not threaten to consign them to the third tier.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.