Just as Manchester United were left staring at the prospect of an unwanted FA Cup replay in the face, the in-form Jesse Lingard finally broke Derby County’s resistance with a stunning strike after 84 minutes of incessant Red pressure, before Romelu Lukaku added a second right at the death. Jose Mourinho’s men missed a host of glorious opportunities to open the scoring earlier on in the game, with the Rams’ veteran goalkeeper Scott Carson pulling off a number of fine saves, whilst United were denied by the post on three occasions.
Coming in on the back of a solid 2-0 victory away to Everton just four days previously, Mourinho made five changes to his starting line-up, most notably in goal, where David de Gea was handed a rare day and replace by Argentina international Sergio Romero. Whilst the full-backs selected were the same two that started at Goodison Park in Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw, the Portuguese boss drafted in a new centre-back pairing in the shape of Chris Smalling and Daley Blind. The ever-impressive Nemanja Matic was left out of the matchday squad as Henrikh Mkhitaryan was handed another chance to impress following his disappointing showing during the recent goalless draw at home to Southampton. Despite his return to fitness following a head injury, Romelu Lukaku started Friday night’s clash on the bench, with Marcus Rashford leading the line.
Captain for the night Paul Pogba had an early sighter as his shot from outside the box was comfortably gathered by Carson, before the Frenchman set up Jesse Lingard with a clever pass, only for the Englishman to blast his effort over the crossbar. The former Juventus midfielder, who put in a man of the match performance at Goodison on Monday, nearly opened the scoring shortly after, but his left-footed strike did not curl quickly enough and drifted past the wrong side of the post. United thought they had the breakthrough when Juan Mata’s free-kick from the edge of the box seemed to be destined for the top corner, only for Carson to palm the ball around the post with a fine save.
The hosts did not have everything go their own way, however and Romero had to be on his toes as Derby threatened to take a shock lead through a number of counter-attacks, with former United man Tom Lawrence proving to be the visitors’ key man. The Rams had two great chances in quick succession to break the deadlock and stun Old Trafford. First, Lawrence’s well-delivered corner found the head of centre-back Alex Pearce, whose effort from just a few yards out should have hit the back of the net, if not at least brought a save from Romero, rather than sail into the stands. Moments later, the Argentine was forced into a fine stop, as he tipped Marcus Olsson’s diving header over the bar and away for a corner. The best chance of the half, however, fell to Rashford. Completely unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box, the 20-year-old should have buried his header from a delightful Mkhitaryan cross from the left-hand side. Instead, the England international made little contact with the ball and saw his effort come back off the post, when he should have been celebrating handing his side the lead. At the end of hectic first-half, Carson was once again called into action as he had to acrobatically tip Pogba’s fierce free-kick over the bar, further frustrating the hosts.
During the interval, Mourinho decided to call upon the services of Lukaku, who was brought on for a disappointing Mkhitaryan. The Armenian had yet another hugely underwhelming showing, as he routinely handed possession back to the opposition and looks a player completely void of confidence, as his time at Old Trafford seems to be nearing its end. Lukaku’s introduction injected extra pace into United’s forward line and the Belgian rose well to meet Rashford’s in-swinging corner, but couldn’t direct his header onto the right side of the post. A quick Derby breakaway reminded the hosts of the danger they possessed on the counter-attack, as Tom Lawrence forced Romero into a fine, low stop to push his long-range effort away for a corner.
Rashford will count himself unlucky that he did not manage to add his 10 strikes in all competitions this season, as he saw his ferocious shot from inside the box cannon back off the post, having beaten Carson all ends up. It felt as though it was not to be United’s night and that sense of frustration was heightened when, first, Pogba missed an absolute sitter, sending his effort shockingly wide with Carson grounded after saving Lingard’s attempt, before Lukaku did brilliantly to rise above the Derby defenders to meet an Anthony Martial cross, only for his header to crash against the post, although the Belgian was flagged for offside.
Then, on 84 minutes, came the explosion of joy from the Old Trafford faithful. Martial, lively since his introduction in the second-half, picked up possession in Derby’s half and played a crisp pass into the feet of Lukaku, stationed with his back to goal on the edge of the box. His lay-off to the nearby Lingard was a lofted one and United’s number 14 needed just one touch to set himself before sending an absolute peach of a strike past Carson and into the top corner, much to the relief of fans, players and manager alike.
With time running out and the deadlock broken, Derby committed men forward in search of a late equaliser that would force a replay at Pride Park. Then, right at the death and with the Rams backline exposed, Lukaku played a neat one-two with the rampaging Martial and the Belgian’s powerful effort went through Carson and into the back of the net to seal United’s passage through to the FA Cup fourth round.
The new year has seen United get off to the perfect start with two 2-0 victories and Mourinho’s men now have plenty of time to prepare for their next fixture, as they welcome relegation-threatened Stoke City to Old Trafford on Monday week.