There are no bad wins in knockout competitions, but Manchester United's progress through to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup was far from straight forward. A committed Blackburn Rovers side gave the lie to their lowly league position and pushed United all the way. They even took the lead, the first goal against United for more than four games.
Still, if a team is going to lose a run of clean sheets, it's as well to do it in style. After 17 minutes Marvin Emnes — transformed for a moment into Kaka — slalomed past his man, twisted, turned, and slid a reverse pass through United's defence. Then Danny Graham — turned for a second into Gareth Bale — chipped Sergio Romero with his left foot. Jose Mourinho applauded the first goal United had conceded in more than eight hours; Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo looked very silly indeed.
United, pride stung, began to press for the equaliser immediately. Ander Herrera warmed the goalkeeper's palms from short range, then Henrikh Mkhitaryan sent a left-footed drive a yard or so past the post. The equaliser arrived just before the half hour: United broke from their own box past an ambling Blackburn defence, and Mkhitaryan pinged a perfectly weighted, forty-odd yard, outside of the foot through ball to an unmarked Marcus Rashford, The youngster rounded the keeper and rolled home.
You might expect a team languishing near the bottom of the Championship to drop their heads at this point, but Blackburn, perhaps encouraged by United's makeshift defence, stayed in the game for the first half, They might even have retaken the lead when Charlie Mulgrew — momentarily translated into David Beckham — clipped a precise, long-range pass to Craig Conway. However, Ashley Young slid in to distract him, and the Scot couldn't keep his shot down.
For their part, United had two decent chances to take a lead into the break. The first came when Henrikh Mkhitaryan lead a galloping to the edge of the Blackburn box, but went when he elected not to shoot early and the defence swarmed back. Then Jesse Lingard rose to meet a whipped near-post cross from Young, but he failed to morph into Sam Vokes and the header went wide.
Under darkening skies and in thickening mist, the second half started slowly. United passed, probed, and occasionally surrendered possession; Blackburn tried and just about succeeded to keep things tight at the back, but couldn't profit from their occasional breaks. The game drifted past the hour mark without a real chance for either side, so Mourinho, desperate to avoid a replay, sent on the big guns.
He was nearly instantly rewarded. After a United corner came to nothing, Paul Pogba, wide on the right, slid a cute pass into Ander Herrera on the edge of the box. The Spaniard drove the ball across the box and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, on the stretch, couldn't quite make his first touch a goalscoring one.
As it was, Mourinho had to wait 13 minutes for his game-breakers to break the game. Pogba took possession of the ball just inside United's half, looked up and launched a sharp iron shot over the top of Blackburn's wonky defensive line. Ibrahimovic took advantage of the absent defenders to run around the ball, let it bounce, then poke past the advancing keeper.
The rest of the game threatened to pass by in a haze of Pogba long passes, but then Sergio Romero decided to try to make things entertaining again. Blackburn youngster Conor Mahoney drifted past two players on the edge of the United box, then fired in a sharp shot straight at United's goalkeeper. The Argentine should have held it, but instead, transformed momentarily into Gary Sprake, he palmed it feebly back into the middle of the box.
Luckily for United, the follow-up went straight into Romero's face — instant karma — the follow-up to the follow-up was met with a wonderful reflex save, and the follow-up to the follow-up to the follow-up — we think; we lost count — which found the net, came from an offside position. Not a particularly convincing performance from the back-ups, then, but the fight for the cups goes on.