Jose Mourinho and Manchester United relishing battles

FA Cup fifth round
Blackburn Rovers 1 (Graham 17) Manchester United 2 (Rashford 27, Ibrahimovic 75)
Mourinho is rebuilding his reputation and, more significantly, that of Manchester United.

Manchester United goalkeeper Sergio Romero and Blackburn striker Danny Graham battle for the ball as Paul Pogba closes in

From modest, hesitant beginnings, and a mid-season slump that had a permanent frown tattooed across the face of Jose Mourinho, slowly but surely the legendary manager is rebuilding his reputation and, more significantly, that of Manchester United.

That was the conclusion to draw from an FA Cup fifth-round visit to struggling Championship side Blackburn in which United trailed, drew level and then, eventually, won thanks to a bold double substitution from Mourinho.

The Portuguese, desperate to avoid further fixture congestion in a season that could already extend to 66 games, threw on Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic after an hour when many of Mourinho’s peers would have elected to rest them with vital games to come this week in both Europa League and at Wembley in the League Cup final.

Within minutes, the pair were involved as Ibrahimovic slid in and came within millimetres of converting Ander Herrera’s far-post cross.

And on 75 minutes, Pogba, from just inside his half, played a superb pass which Ibrahimovic chased, beating the offside trap and calmly waited for the ball to sit perfectly before rolling his 24th goal of the season into the corner of the net from six yards.

Thus, United’s interest in all four competitions they entered back in August continued, as did Mourinho’s increasingly impressive handling of his squad — particularly the 35-year-old maverick Ibrahimovic and the world’s most expensive footballer Pogba.

Next up, in the FA Cup at least, is Mourinho’s former club Chelsea although the United manager was in no mood to analyse the prospect of facing his former employers in the quarter-finals and a return to the club where his reputation suffered such damage last season.

“I have no reaction,” said Mourinho. “I have to play Saint-Etienne, I have to play the final, I have to play, hopefully, another game in the Europa League, I have to fight for a top-four position in the Premier League.

“So I have so many things to think about. Probably Chelsea can only think about that because they are champions. They have nothing else to play for. The FA Cup is something I believe is important for them.”

This was no simple passage to the quarter-finals for United, especially on a weekend of FA Cup action that had given impetus and belief to the underdogs.

Blackburn had taken the lead through a superbly-executed 17th-minute move that even had Mourinho sportingly applauding from his position in the United technical area.

Marvin Emnes carved out the opening with a strong run and skilful move past Marcos Rojo before he slipped through a brilliant pass for team-mate Danny Graham who beat Romero with a superb left-foot finish.

It was the first goal conceded by United in 471 minutes of league and cup football and Graham, a journeyman 31-year-old with the 13th club of his career, threatened to join the roll call of this weekend’s FA Cup heroes headed by Lincoln and Millwall.

But United had other ideas and took just 10 minutes to draw level as Henrikh Mkhitaryan, continuing his impressive form over the second half of the season, sent Marcus Rashford racing away with a magnificent pass from around halfway.

His speedy team-mate chased onto the ball and calmly rounded goalkeeper Jason Steele before converting into an open net.

United had scares to contend with, not least when Charlie Mulgrew and Anthony Stokes both had the ball in the net only to have “goals” correctly ruled out, but with Pogba and Ibrahimovic to throw on, Mourinho always had a massive card to play.

“People learn how to play together, that’s normal,” said Mourinho of the pair’s growing understanding. “They’ve played together for seven or eight months so I think the connection between quality players is helped by time.”

But while United needed their highest-profile pair to leap to their rescue, there was no doubting that this was a thoroughly professional job carried out by Mourinho’s selection.

On Thursday, despite beating Saint-Etienne 3-0, the manager had been critical of his player’s attitudes and their sloppy start to the game.

Not so at Ewood where a weekend of FA Cup upsets had the desired effect on his players’ mindset.

“Today, they were ready,” he said. “I think they felt it was a really difficult match and I think what happened yesterday, with every Premier League team in difficult situations, was one more alert. So the players knew it would be difficult and came out with the right attitude. I’m pleased with that.”

BLACKBURN ROVERS (4-4-1-1): Steele 7; Lowe 7, Greer 7, Lenihan 7, Williams 6; Feeney 6 (Mahoney 72, 6), Guthrie 6 (Tomlinson 80, 6), Mulgrew 7, Conway 7; Emnes 8; Graham 7 (Stokes 76, 6).

Subs not used: Raya, Hendrie, Nyambe, Brown.

MAN UNITED (4-2-3-1): Romero 6; Young 7, Smalling 6, Rojo 6, Darmian 5; Herrera 7, Carrick 7; Lingard 5 (Pogba 61, 8), Mkhitaryan 9, Martial 6 (Ibrahimovic 61, 8); Rashford 8 (Mata 88).

Subs not used: Henderson, Bailly, Shaw, Schweinsteiger.

Referee: M Atkinson 6



Breaking Stories

Thorbjorn Olesen continues Ryder Cup push as Jamieson and Waring set the pace in Gothenburg

PAT KEANE: A closed mouth catches no flies

More From The Irish Examiner