There was a point of this match when Manchester United were threatened with the possibility of their first away defeat to lower-league opposition in this competition since Ron Atkinson took a team to Bournemouth, then of the Third Division, in 1984. On Sunday they were losing, against the team second bottom of the Championship, and in those moments the supporters of Blackburn Rovers were given a fleeting reminder of happier times.
It did not last long, however. The harsh reality for Blackburn, under the ownership of the Venkys, is that they are straying dangerously towards third-tier football next season for the first time since 1980. The protest banners against the club’s absent owners hung from every bridge on the M65 and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s winning goal arrived at the one side of the stadium, the away end, that was full. Almost a third of the crowd was made up by United’s supporters and, though Blackburn acquitted themselves reasonably well, it would be stretching the truth to say the story of this match – the holders and 12-times winners fighting back from a goal down before a late winner from their new hero – was as exciting as it perhaps sounds. What a sad indictment, too, that a tie of this nature could take place with 8,000 unfilled seats.
José Mourinho’s team did have a nervous 10-minute spell after Danny Graham had given Blackburn a 17th-minute lead but they quickly shook their heads clear and it was no surprise they went on to navigate a route into the quarter-finals once Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s beautifully weighted pass had sent Marcus Rashford running clear to score their equaliser.
Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba are a pretty useful pair to bring on as second-half substitutes and United’s superiority eventually paid off when those two combined for the game’s decisive moment a quarter of an hour from the end of normal time. Ibrahimovic, with another stylish finish, now has 23 goals in his first six months in English football – or 24 if the Community Shield is counted – and is making a decent case to be considered for the individual awards at the end of the season. His latest contribution also meant United avoided a replay and the complication of another addition to an already cluttered schedule, even if a trip to Chelsea in the next round was not the prize they would have wanted.