Jesse Lingard the hero again as Manchester United eventually break Derby County's resistance
How would Manchester United’s last few weeks have panned out if Jesse Lingard was not enjoying the finest form of his career so far?
There were some who questioned the club’s decision to hand the much-maligned academy graduate a new £100,000-a-week contract last April, but Lingard has earned every penny recently while those around him have faltered and here, a fifth goal in his last six appearances finally gave Jose Mourinho’s side a breakthrough against stubborn Championship promotion contenders Derby County.
Romelu Lukaku added a second as stoppage time was added on to ensure that United would progress to the fourth round of this season’s FA Cup and avoid an awkward replay in the east Midlands. Gary Rowett’s visitors perhaps deserved a reunion on their own turf having kept their hosts at bay for 83 minutes, but Lingard, as he has so often done in recent weeks, came through for United.
Mourinho’s teamsheet, with four changes to the side that beat Everton on New Year’s Day, reflected both the lack of depth currently at his disposal and just how seriously he is taking this competition. With City disappearing into the horizon at the top of the Premier League and some distance left to run in Europe, the FA Cup is now United’s best chance of silverware this season.
Their chances of a day out at Wembley in May are likely to depend on Paul Pogba, who started despite playing every minute of United’s congested Christmas schedule and, against second-tier opposition, made his class tell in the first half. After toying with Tom Huddlestone out on the left to set up a wayward Jesse Lingard effort, he went close with an effort of his own, whipping the ball around Scott Carson’s post from outside the area.
The Frenchman appeared to have been given freedom to press forward by Mourinho and it helped United, who were dominant for much of the opening 45 minutes and should have entered the break ahead. Their best opportunities fell to Marcus Rashford, auditioning in the lone striker role with Lukaku on the bench. The youngster should have done better with his first sight of goal, but dipped a venomous shot over after initially doing well to win a 50/50 with visiting defender Alex Pearce.
United already deserved to be ahead but Derby threatened on the break and almost made them pay with a header from the unlikely source of Marcus Olsson. The 5ft8in full back leaped to meet Johnny Russell’s floated cross from the left with a looping attempt that Sergio Romero was forced to tip over. When Pearce went close from the subsequent corner, it was a reminder to United that they still had much work to do.
Rashford failed to heed it though, spurning his second and simplest chance of the half shortly after. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s first respectable cross of the evening found United’s frontman free at the far post for a flicked header but Rashford’s effort hit the base of the post and bounced away favourably for Derby. In that much space, he simply had to score.
The audition was over. At half time, Mourinho shifted Rashford to the left, replaced a woeful Mkhitaryan and brought Lukaku on through the middle, less than a week after he was stretchered off the Old Trafford pitch wearing an oxygen mask and with head injury, but the change did not have an immediate effect.
It was instead Derby who first almost found a breakthrough in the second half and almost through a Rashford error. The youngster failed to properly clear a corner from the visitors, instead slicing the ball straight to Huddlestone, who was waiting to pick up scraps on the edge of the area. Luke Shaw put himself in front of the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder’s shot but it deflected wildly off the full back’s head and only cleared Romero’s bar by a few inches. A close shave.
United resumed control after that scare but, save the industrious and inventive Pogba, they did not do enough to create clear openings. Rashford at least looked livelier in a role on the flanks and as the match entered its closing stages, he struck the base of the post once again. This time, it was no easy chance, with the youngster having cut inside from the right and manufactured space for the shot. He was unlucky to see it bounce back to him off the upright.
The hosts began to turn the screw in search of a winner and in hope of avoiding a replay. Martial hung a cross high enough in the air for only the towering Lukaku to reach, but again a United header hit the frame of the goal and bounced out rather than creeping in. Pogba, quieter in the second half than in the first, was guilty of the worst miss, tamely firing wide when he had an open goal to aim at.
A replay appeared to be on the cards and would have been but for Lingard’s second spectacular goal from distance in the space of a week. After an intelligent lay-off from Lukaku, the in-form winger struck a perfect first-time destined for Carson’s top left-hand corner. Old Trafford erupted in relief.
With the onus now on Rowett’s side to find a late equaliser, United picked them off on the counter to add a second. Lukaku latched onto Pogba’s clearance following a fruitless spell on Derby pressure inside the United penalty area. The Belgian did well to hold the ball up then carried it forward, exchanged passes with Martial and applied a scruffy finish underneath Carson. The Derby goalkeeper almost kept it out but it bounced underneath his body and the momentum carried it on into the net.