Goals from Marcus Rashford, Wout Weghorst and Bruno Fernandes helped Manchester United put one hand on the trophy in their Carabao Cup semi-final clash with Nottingham Forest on Wednesday night, with the visitors scoring three goals with no reply at The City Ground in the first leg of the tie.
It only took Rashford just six minutes to give United the lead through a combination of great skill and poor defending from Forest. The Englishman picked the ball up inside his own half on the left flank before carrying it down the line, drawing both Serge Aurier and Joe Worrall towards him. The 25-year-old skipped between the defending pair and entered the area before beating Wayne Hennessey at his near post to score his 18th goal of the season.
The Red Devils were controlling the game until a shock breakaway halfway through the first half that saw Sam Surridge plant the ball perfectly into the bottom corner of the net, but much to the despair of the home crowd, the striker was deemed to have been just offside by VAR; a harsh call, but a correct one nonetheless.
The disallowed goal was antagonising for Forest, yet it seemed to spur them on throughout the remainder of the first half. Brennan Johnson in particular got some joy out of the United defence but David De Gea was never consistently peppered with efforts on goal.
Weghorst delivered a crushing blow to Steve Cooper’s side just before the halftime whistle to score his first goal for his new club. The Dutchman latched onto the rebound from Antony’s volley effort, getting there ahead of the defender and placing the ball with the outside of his foot into the roof of the net. It was not a bad finish in the end, in that he made it look easier than what it probably was.
The second half passed relatively quickly in the sense that Erik ten Hag’s men were largely in control of possession and just lacking that cutting edge, whilst Forest really did not threaten like they should have done at two goals down.
The substitutes played a part in United’s third in the 89th minute when Facundo Pellestri just missed out to some heroic Neco Williams intervention on the last line of defence. Anthony Elanga picked up the scraps inside the area, playing a small, dinked pass to set up Fernandes who drilled the ball low and hard beyond the goalkeeper to spark wild celebrations from the United faithful who had made the midweek journey to Nottingham.
Final Score: Nottingham Forest 0-3 Manchester United (Rashford 6’, Weghorst 45’, Fernandes 89’)
Man of the match
It was not at any point thrilling from Weghorst on his third outing for The Reds, but it was certainly an effective one overall that justifies an outside shout for the Man of the Match award.
The 6ft 6in striker’s most obvious contribution was his killer blow just before halftime hit when he showed his true striking instinct to put his team two goals to the good. Having had limited service in the games against Crystal Palace and Arsenal, the goal will come as a huge relief to the former Wolfsburg man.
It would be a discredit to Weghorst not to pick up on his link-up play across the game, though. Whilst not being particularly pacey when latching onto the final ball, he is certainly an outlet for United’s midfielders and wide players to feed off. Antony had a glorious opportunity in the first half that the Dutchman was involved in, and he was particularly prominent when United were probing early on.
Definitely do not let Lisandro Martinez’s performance go under the radar; the Argentina international won the award on Sky Sports’ coverage, although fans got a taste of what Weghorst can offer on Tuesday night as he seems to be growing into the striker role and building greater chemistry with his teammates by the game.
The bigger picture
It would take an almighty capitulation like no other for United to bottle a lead by three goals at Old Trafford next week in the second leg. It would hardly be audacious for Reds fans to say they are off to Wembley next month.
In more ways than one, Fernandes’ late strike was the perfect cherry on top for Ten Hag who can now afford to rotate his team that little bit extra next week. Alejandro Garnacho clocked half an hour in the victory. Pellestri made his senior debut in the quarter-final against Charlton Athletic and has now got twenty minutes on his second appearance in the semi-final. Elanga came on in the 85th minute and got an assist. It begs the question as to whether or not all three could have a rare ninety minutes to impress in the second leg whilst the pressure will be off.
Of course, United face Reading in the FA Cup fourth round this Saturday before the second leg, so perhaps the more peripheral players could get a run out in that one ahead of the League Cup semi-final next week in the game after. Whilst giving minutes to those who need them, the rotation also allows key players a rest ahead of a busy schedule.
Luke Shaw was confirmed to be ill pre-match by the manager and so got a rest, with Raphael Varane also getting a night off on the bench. Victor Lindelof slotted in at centre-half, whilst Harry Maguire unfortunately missed out altogether due to suspension having picked up yellow cards in the previous two rounds.
Of course, you would expect Ten Hag and his assistants will have the rotation all planned out.
There is a big opportunity for Man United to win a trophy for the first time since 2017. Supporters will be keeping their fingers crossed as this is truly a golden opportunity.
What is next?
Next up for Ten Hag and United is an FA Cup fourth round tie with Reading at Old Trafford on Saturday 28th January, which is this coming weekend, at 20:00 (BST). After that, attentions turn to Nottingham Forest in the second leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final, which takes place at The Theatre of Dreams next Wednesday on the 1st February at 20:00 (BST).