Mourinho avoids Cup humiliation but Rooney's problems persist
Northampton 1 Man Utd 3
A calamity averted for the manager and the side on whose struggles the football firmament is currently transfixed, though there was nothing to suggest a corner turned and easier times immediately ahead.
Jose Mourinho was subdued, carrying some of the world on his shoulders, it seemed, and his litany of complaints to the fourth official which we are accustomed to could not hide the fact. He wore grey shoes on Wednesday night and the grey look of an individual wondering where his Midas touch disappeared to.
The burden that Wayne Rooney has immediately become to him was not lightened. The 30-year-old ended the game wide right, a bystander to the recovery from Manchester United's brief difficult spell which substitutes Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford had manufactured. The drift towards the unenviable decision to drop Rooney is no less inexorable because of a win against such modest opposition as this. It will dominate the discourse ahead of Saturday's encounter with Leicester and when it comes, it will be another drama.
All told, not exactly a narrative and an inheritance to smile about, even though the performances of goalscorers Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick certainly were. Both staked a claim to starting against Leicester at Old Trafford, revealing to Mourinho that he does have options.
It was no place for a manager who, as every amateur statistician seemed to know, lost 14 out of his previous 32 games as a manager and just succumbed to three successive defeats for the first time in 14 years. All the little rituals of a Manchester United journey into modest surrounds were in place. A chorus of four boos for Ibrahimovic as he stepped out from the stand, pausing for a moment, with manifest disdain, to take in what he was seeing. A face-to-face encounter with Northampton's Bob the Builder mascot.
Mourinho's team sheet had a touch of reputation building about it. All but two of team that succumbed at Watford were rested and the prevailing mood of national doubt about Rooney in the intervening days made his own inclusion an enforced one.
The work-rate was there in the first half, of course, but there was no redemption. Operating at the spear of the attack, he was anything but sharp.
The forward was spared initial embarrassment by straying into an offside position when he side-footed wide from in front of goal, after Ashley Young teed him up after seven minutes. He couldn't reach the six-yard box fast enough to divert Marco Rojo's low cross from the left into the net, seven minutes later. When he finally did poke home a rebound when Tim Fosu Mensah's header had clattered the bar, he was offside again.
Carrick provided the class and assurance which has been missing in midfield. Restored there after a month when he has been invisible to Mourinho, his opening 18th-minute goal - a first-time right-footed shot bent into the top left-hand corner when a free-kick was blocked into his path - was fine, and so too his ability to find a forward pass
But the problems lay further back, allowing a Northampton side who looked short of the required standard a route back into the match. Rojo's attempt to defend United's left flank was frankly inept as Sam Hoskins embarrassed him twice in the first half-hour. The team's attempts to build from the back were also laboured, littered with square passes.
Fosu-Mensah was also in a state of panic when Kenji Gorre, the former United trainee, ran at him. First he allowed the 21-year-old Dutch loanee to find a shot which Sergio Romero had to touch onto the bar and over. Then he dithered in possession in the box, allowing Hoskins to seize the ball. Daley Blind clumsily fouled him and Alex Revell converted the penalty.
The reinforcements were on within ten minutes of the re-start - Rooney dropping back for Zlatan to seize his space and Rashford arriving to win some returns on the left flank and provide more meaningful service than a largely ineffective Memphis Depay.
Rashford was the impact player again, delivering high and deep into the area after collecting a 40-yard ball from Carrick and then laying a ball into the inside left channel that Herrera ran on to and thumped low past Adam Smith to re-establish the lead.
The night was wrapped up because the goalkeeper was undone by his own nerves when a lumped ball by Herrera, who also struck a post, descended on him with Rashford in pursuit of it, 15 minutes from time.
Smith made to kick it and found fresh air, allowing Rashford to nip in behind him, seize the ball and walk it into the net. It was the fortune of a striker operating with such an unfettered mind that he believes thing will happen.
Rooney, observing this unfold from the flank, has forgotten what that feels like. (Independent News Service)