Zlatan keeps United on triple trophy trail
Blackburn Rvs 1 Man United 2
Zlatan Ibrahimovic's 24th goal of an increasingly productive season means that Manchester United's pursuit of three knockout trophies remains extant.
As their boisterous supporters rammed into Ewood Park's Darwen End insisted, they are on their way to Wembley. For Blackburn Rovers, meanwhile, the immediate future is altogether more prosaic. On Friday they head to Burton Albion in pursuit of three points in the increasingly scrambled effort to remain in the Championship.
How things have changed. Twenty-three years ago when Blackburn entertained United it was to contest the Premier League title. Back then, Rovers made it their business to challenge football's big-city cartels.
Here, in this re-staging of old battles, the growing chasm between the two clubs was made clear by the nature of substitutes. In order to secure ultimate victory, United manager Jose Mourinho - who will visit his former club Chelsea in next month's quarter-finals - sent on the serial champion Ibrahimovic and the world's most costly player Paul Pogba.
Meanwhile Blackburn's Owen Coyle sent on two academy youngsters, one of whom was making his debut. Once Blackburn outbid United for the signature of Alan Shearer. Here, the entire Blackburn squad cost £450,000. Which is roughly the equivalent of Pogba's match fee.
For the Blackburn fans, the explanation for the change in relative condition is simple. It is all the fault of the owners. "Venky's Out" was the message of the protest banners hung from every motorway bridge heading into town.
Yet, when the game began it was hard to discern any huge gap in status. Chivvied on by an eager Coyle on the touchline, Blackburn started as if still staffed by Premier League royalty. Not remotely cowed by circumstance or reputation, they fizzed into the tackle, their full-back Liam Feeney dashing down the flanks, their seasoned strike force of Danny Graham and Marvin Emnes full of guile.
And United began as if expecting to stroll. In the opening exchanges they were off the pace. Chris Smalling misjudged the bounce and let Emnes run free, Marcos Rojo passed straight to a Blackburn shirt, then first Ashley Young, then Marcus Rashford, ran out of turf as they broke into the area.
Sensing they could exploit such complacency, Blackburn pressed forward. After just over a quarter of an hour of phoney war, Emnes let fly with a fierce shot on target after Henrikh Mkhitaryan had failed to clear. The shot stung Sergio Romero's hands.
United had not yet properly rubbed the sleep dust from their eyes when, a moment later, Emnes brilliantly turned Rojo close to the edge of the box. He then supplied an adeptly timed through-ball between Smalling and Matteo Darmian to Graham. The former Swansea man slipped a smart left-foot finish past Romero. It was a goal that was coming. More to the point, the excellence of its execution was unimpeachable. Even Mourinho was moved to applaud.
Unfortunately for Blackburn, the goal also had the unintended effect of finally snapping United out of their lethargy. First Jason Steele saved from Ander Herrera, then Mkhitaryan shot wide from distance. Ten minutes after Blackburn had taken the lead, the Armenian showed anything Emnes could do he could do better.
A long throw-out from Romero found him on the halfway line, where he strode forward before playing a quite exquisite through-ball, arcing with backspin, which landed perfectly into Rashford's path. Left onside by Feeney, the United youngster found himself alone. He went round Steele with silky ease and passed the ball into the net.
But if it seemed the natural order had been restored, Blackburn were paying no heed. They continued attacking with verve and power.
Craig Conway got in behind Young, and, with the United man sprawling, hammered a shot over, then Charlie Mulgrew saw a shot deflected wide.
Standing on the edge of his technical area, hands deep in the pockets of his mac, Mourinho had seen enough.
With an hour gone he sent on the cavalry, replacements of a sort well beyond the resources of the deprived home side. And within moments of Pogba and Ibrahimovic arriving, Herrera's cross-shot was almost turned in by the Swede.
Rashford then piled forward again, his shot cannoning behind for a corner.
The inevitable came five minutes after the pair's deployment. It was so simply executed. A long ball from Pogba found Ibrahimovic, beautifully timing his run, in on his own behind the Blackburn back line. He turned, and with accomplished ease, shot into the corner of Steele's net.
"Sometimes you have difficult matches because you make it difficult for yourself," said Mourinho. "Tonight was different. Blackburn made it difficult for us. They were very well-organised. They fought very hard. We had to play well and with good attitude."
Even that, though, was almost not enough. Blackburn did not give up - and nearly furred up Mourinho's fixture list further by securing a replay-forcing equaliser.
With moments remaining, Romero saved twice in a flurry of efforts, first from the substitute Connor Mahoney, then from Emnes. The ball landed at the feet of another substitute, Anthony Stokes. He steered it home, sending Coyle into temporary rapture. But it was from a position so far offside he was almost in Burnley.
Which meant, as their old rivals headed the few miles south to contemplate stocking up on silver polish, all he is left to plan for is survival. (© Daily Telegraph, London)