It will take more than the Carabao Cup to prove Manchester United are back, but it could prove a significant step in their renaissance nonetheless. Erik ten Hag is one win away from the first silverware of his reign, United needing only one victory to end a six-year trophy drought. A semi-final was in effect decided in Nottingham last week. The formalities were concluded with a 12th consecutive triumph at Old Trafford. Newcastle United await in a repeat of the 1999 FA Cup final, and Manchester United would appreciate the same result.
Part of the significance lay in Jadon Sancho’s return, with the winger making his first appearance since October and greeted by a loud cheer by the United fans. The first goal came from a forward whose absence was briefer. Anthony Martial came off the bench to make his first appearance since the Manchester derby and lashed in a shot after he tried to find Marcus Rashford. Instead, Scott McKenna blocked but redirected the ball to the Frenchman.
The second came courtesy of Fred, who had an audition for an extended role in the team in Christian Eriksen’s absence. Kneeing the ball in, courtesy of Rashford’s unselfish assist after a Bruno Fernandes diagonal ball, may not be the crucial factor but the ebullient Brazilian got the Stretford End singing about Wembley.
Perhaps Ten Hag demonstrated his determination to win every match by introducing Rashford for the final half-hour as part of a triple change with Martial and Sancho. There was little prospect of Nottingham Forest making up for their three-goal first-leg deficit and Rashford had featured in every game since the World Cup. On he came anyway and, without scoring, he duly contributed.
Before he was introduced Alejandro Garnacho produced some sparkling dribbling. He almost capped a fine display with a goal, with Wayne Hennessey parrying a shot after he twisted and turned past Neco Williams. Antony also brought some of the entertainment and his ferocious half-volley flew just over. Yet this was his sixth consecutive game without a goal, which has mattered less when Rashford has been in such prolific form.
Yet United’s deadline-day business meant much of the focus was on the midfield. With Eriksen out for three months, Fred came in. He approached his task with typical energy, and that took him to within a couple of yards of the Forest goal to score. But, as Ten Hag had accepted, it was scarcely a like-for-like swap, with the Brazilian bringing more graft than craft. Marcel Sabitzer was in the crowd after his arrival on loan from Bayern Munich and the Austria international offers more of Eriksen’s qualities on the ball than Fred. While the newcomer was a spectator, Casemiro was the more creative member of the central-midfield double act as well as the set-piece menace.
He had demonstrated his potency as a scorer with a brace against Reading. Against Forest, Casemiro showed other parts of his attacking threat. He headed wide from a corner, while he met Antony’s free kick with an effort that Hennessey, with an outstretched right foot, did well to save. He delivered a cross for Wout Weghorst, whose header drew a similarly fine stop. With Keylor Navas signing and Dean Henderson set to be fit again soon, Hennessey could soon be demoted to third-choice but at least he could bow out of the team with a fine display.
For Forest, however, a first major semi-final in three decades was an anticlimactic affair. They have now lost three times to United in five weeks: their last nine meetings have produced an aggregate score of 34-3. Ten Hag may have named a stronger side than necessary but rested David de Gea and kept a clean sheet without him. Tom Heaton, granted just his second start for United, blocked Brennan Johnson’s shot and Danilo’s long-range effort.
Forest were due to include a scorer from United’s 2017 League Cup final victory but Jesse Lingard’s return to Old Trafford was ill-fated. He was injured in the warm-up and replaced by Emmanuel Dennis. The stand-in might have turned scorer but for one of his teammates: just before half-time, Dennis’s volley was inadvertently blocked by Sam Surridge. After straying offside before scoring last week, Surridge may have cost his side two goals over the tie. It was a level of generosity Forest could scarcely afford and now Ten Hag is close to doing something David Moyes, Ralf Rangnick and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could not and bringing silverware to Old Trafford.