Derby 1 Manchester United 3: It was 16 years ago that an FA Cup victory supposedly saved Alex Ferguson from losing his job as Manchester United manager and Louis van Gaal may well have just done the same with this win over Derby.
Prior to the visit to the iPro Stadium last night the Dutchman claimed he could not afford to suffer defeat again as the uncertainty surrounding his future intensified.
There could be no margin for error.
And thankfully for Van Gaal there wasn’t, as his players duly delivered a much needed victory with goals from Wayne Rooney, Daley Blind and Juan Mata cancelling out George Thorne’s strike.
In many ways it was a typical United performance from this season. They dominated possession and controlled proceedings to the extent that they should have been out of sight after 30 minutes.
But, as many sides have, Derby fought back and it was not until Blind and Mata’s strike in the final 25 minutes that United could see off their plucky opponents.
Reflecting on the game, Van Gaal said: “It was maybe better than we had trained. We played at the right time against the resistance of Derby. We gave their goal away but at half-time I said that it was a good performance, keep it up and we will win. And we did.”
Reflecting on Blind’s effort, Van Gaal said: “You have to sniff it and he sniffed it. It was a great goal. The Premier League is very important but the FA Cup is the greatest cup in England with a long and important history. We haven’t won it for a long time so we dream of it. After two wins you can’t say that we will win it.”
Mata said: “It was really important for us to win. It is not easy to come here, even though they are not in the Premier League, they are a good team and are physically strong, like to press, and I think we did a good job.
“We came here to play football and play quicker and create more chances to score.”
With respect to the significance of the tie Van Gaal opted to make just two changes from the side’s last Premier League outing against Southampton, with Guillermo Varela coming in for Matteo Darmian and Mata replacing Ander Herrera.
Derby, on the other hand, were unchanged from Monday’s 4-1 defeat to Burnley and they were caught cold as United started the match full of vigour.
In the opening moments, Marouane Fellaini whipped in a ball from out wide but Rooney’s set inside the box was wastefully fired over the bar by Anthony Martial.
It would prove to be a warning sign as after 16 minutes the visitors got the breakthrough their wealth of possession and dominance deserved.
Once again Rooney was at the heart of it, but this time he went alone, receiving the ball from Martial before curling a sumptuous effort into the top corner from outside the box.
Everything was coming through United’s captain and his side continued to dominate their Championship opponents.
A second goal for the visitors seemed inevitable, but then against the run of play Derby were back on level terms seven minutes before the interval.
On the day Nemanja Vidic retired it was an equaliser that would have surely infuriated the former United captain as a long ball was not dealt with and Chris Martin hooked the ball back into the path of Thorne, who duly poked it past David De Gea.
The goal had given Derby the belief they had been lacking in the opening 30 minutes and Paul Clement’s side began to counter attack with purpose.
Martin drew a last ditch tackle from Chris Smalling, while Nick Blackman fired a shot just wide as the hosts finished the half in high spirits.
The break did little in the way of dampening Derby’s mood and they began the second 45 as they had ended the first.
The hosts’ joy was coming from out wide and, after going close earlier, Blackman once again saw his effort fly just past the woodwork.
United too were enjoying success down the flanks and they should have taken the lead with 30 minutes to go as Jesse Lingard’s cross was nodded wide by Mata from five yards out.
Moments later Fellaini’s header drew a save from Scott Carson as Van Gaal’s side awoke from the slumber which they had begun the second-half with.
The tie was beginning to follow the pattern of the first-half as United dominated possession and Derby sat deeper and deeper.
Another goal was on the cards and unsurprisingly it came from the flanks as Lingard’s drilled cross was slammed home by the on-rushing Blind.
On the balance of play it was no more than United deserved and it with 25 minutes left to play the onus was on Derby to produce some FA Cup magic.
In search of an equaliser that would force a replay Clement used all three of his substitutes and urged his side to throw caution to the wind.
But it proved to be Derby’s undoing as the quest for a goal left them open at the back and United duly punished them.
Again it was the flanks that proved to be the source as Martial skipped past his man and squared the ball for Mata.
The Spaniard made no mistake from close range as Van Gaal could breathe easy — for now.
DERBY (4-3-3): Carson 5; Christie 4, Keogh 5, Shackell 4, Warnock 6; Butterfield 5, Thorne 7 (76 Russell 5), Johnson 6 (76 Hendrick); Ince 6 (59 Camara 5), Martin 7, Blackman 6.
Subs not used: Grant, Bryson, Baird, Olsson.
MAN UNITED (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6; Varela 7, Smalling 6, Blind 8, Borthwick-Jackson 7; Fellaini 6, Schneiderlin 6 (72 Carrick 6); Lingard 8, Mata 8 (83 Herrera 6), Martial 8; Rooney 8.
Subs not used: Romero, McNair, Januzaj, Pereira, Depay.
Referee: Anthony Taylor.
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