Two goals inside the last ten minutes from Jesse Lingard and Romelu Lukaku helped Manchester United secure a routine victory over Derby County in their FA Cup third-round tie on Friday night.
Jose Mourinho put out a strong side for the home clash with their Championship opposition and there was a clear gulf in class from the word go, with the hosts laying siege to Scott Carson’s goal.
Marcus Rashford missed two glorious chances to give his side the lead before the break, blazing over the crossbar when well set inside the area before guiding a header on to the post from just a number of yards out, and Paul Pogba fired wide twice as United started to turn the screw on Derby.
The visitors did come close twice in quick succession through Marcus Olsson and Alex Pearce but Mourinho’s side re-asserted control just before half-time when Carson pushed two free-kicks away.
And United started the second as they did the first, coming out fast and continuously testing Carson’s resolve in the Derby goal.
Pogba, Lingard and half-time substitute Lukaku all had shots palmed and parried away by the ex-England number one whilst Rashford – without a goal in seven – saw a dipping shot strike the post.
But just when it seemed that Derby might cling on for a priceless replay it was Lingard who produced yet another stunning 20-yard effort into the top corner to break away hearts, before the returning Lukaku played a neat one-two with Anthony Martial in injury-time to tuck home and secure passage.
United ensure lightning doesn’t strike twice
After being well and truly humbled by Bristol City just a few weeks ago in their last meeting with Championship opposition, Jose Mourinho ensured lightning didn’t strike twice against Derby County.
And whilst they may have left it late on Friday, the result was never really in doubt.
Manchester United have an extremely good pedigree in the FA Cup, losing just one of their past 36 games with lower-ranked opposition prior to kick-off at Old Trafford, and you could understand why.
Mourinho named a similarly strong starting eleven to that which played at Ashton Gate last month but this time around their play was much more dynamic, zipping the ball around quickly and allowing Paul Pogba to work his magic in the middle of the park.
Both he and Jesse Lingard continued their excellent form of late and, backed up by Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford – who could have had a hat-trick – their intricate passing moves proved too much.
Had it not been for an inspired Scott Carson between the sticks and for the woodwork than the score-line could have been much more flattering, but Mourinho has reason to be quietly pleased with his side’s work.
Lingard and Pogba steal the show again
As mentioned above, two players at the heart of everything good about Manchester United’s play once again were the charismatic duo of Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard.
Pogba in particular impressed and, although there are those that will say it was ‘only’ against a Championship side, the way he glided across the pitch and linked defence with attack was superb.
In the absence of Nemanja Matic – being rested after a busy festive schedule – Pogba played the role of an ultimate box-to-box midfielder, and after a slow start since returning from injury this Christmas he carried on from where he left off against Everton with a display full of power and flair.
Within ten minutes he had already sent two long-range efforts flying narrowly past Carson’s goal and it was from that moment that you could sense he was in the mood, and if it hadn’t been for a string of excellent stops from the Derby goalkeeper – one free-kick in particular springs to mind – then the Frenchman would have deservedly got himself on the scoresheet.
As it was, it was left to the red-hot youngster Lingard to settle the home supporter’s nerves in the 84th minute with yet another trademark long-range strike, this time rifling high into the top corner.
It was the 25-year-old’s fifth goal in his last six games and he’s really starting to outshine his fellow United midfielders this season – which can only be a good thing as United strive for a top-four finish.
Tougher tests will undoubtedly surface with the Premier League and Champions League set to gain traction over the next month, and the FA Cup could turn out to be an unwanted distraction from their main ambitions for this season, but the form of Pogba and Lingard is a huge positive for United.
Eye-opening experience for promotion-chasing Derby
With no loss in seven heading into their third-round trip to Old Trafford, and with the knowledge that Bristol City humbled United last month, Derby would have had high hopes ahead of the game.
The Rams’ impressive run of form over the festive period has seen them rise to second in the Championship table, two points ahead of their nearest challengers Cardiff City, and now there’s a real growing feeling that this could be the year that sees them return to the Premier League.
Yet if they do make it to the pinnacle of English football once again then they will have to get accustomed to playing the likes of Manchester United week-in, week-out, and on Friday’s showing there’s still a lot of work to be done before their squad is prepared for that.
To their credit they gave it a go in the opening 45 minutes, looking sharp on the counter-attack and committing numbers forward to try and get at a weakened defence containing Victor Lindelof at right-back and Daley Blind in the middle.
But despite holding the hosts for all of 84 minutes – coming within touching distance of an unlikely replay – they were indebted to both Carson and their own woodwork for keeping them in the game for so long.
The main aim for manager Gary Rowett will undoubtedly be to secure top-flight football for next season for the first time in ten years, but they’ll look back at Friday’s defeat as an eye-opening experience that offered a glimpse of what the 2018-19 campaign could have in store.