Man United overcome Derby in FA Cup fourth round as Blind, Mata deliver
DERBY, England -- Three points from Pride Park as Man United beat Derby 3-1 to book a spot in the FA Cup fifth round.
1. Blind, Mata fire Man United through
A glint of silverware is still in Manchester United's sights. Wembley and an FA Cup final remain possible, albeit a distant prospect. Manager Louis van Gaal has ridden out the latest crisis with Friday's 3-1 win at Derby even if it jangled the Dutchman's nerves along the way.
He could thank compatriot Daley Blind for United being first in the hat for Monday's fifth-round draw when the centre-back showed off his "Total Football" credentials. He was the player on the end of a Jesse Lingard cross, drifting into the box to score a 65th minute strike that put United ahead 2-1. In the 84th minute, Juan Mata supplied United's third when Anthony Martial performed the same function as Lingard, beating his defender and squaring it for the Spaniard to fire home.
All three United goals were well-taken. Wayne Rooney's 16th minute turn and swivel on the left-hand edge of the area bought him space to whip a curling shot beyond the wingspan of Derby goalkeeper Scott Carson. His sixth goal of 2016 -- all of them in his past six games -- may not yet be enough to brush over the poor form of the first half of the season, but at least the captain is currently coming through for his manager.
But it could have all gone so differently. When Marouane Fellaini ran the ball out of play for a goal-kick without a challenger near him in the early seconds, the scene looked set for another night of frustration, and there were still plenty of United's regular problems in evidence. Emboldened by George Thorne's first-half equaliser, Derby looked more than capable of springing what would probably not have been viewed as much of an upset.
United had failed to build on the lead Rooney had given them, paying price after 37 minutes when Thorne equalised, finishing a slick Derby move. The hosts calmly sliced through a United defence that was offered no protection by a malfunctioning midfield. An opponent with a touch more quality than the Championship side might have caused United real problems. Yet they survived, and their under-pressure manager will no doubt make much of his team find a scoring touch. Derby fans' prediction he would be "sacked in the morning" ended up being wide of the mark.
2. No more heroes for United?
How long can Van Gaal remain defiant? He used the phrase "awful and horrible" in front of the Manchester press pack this week when dismissing the latest suggestion that his time at Old Trafford is drawing to a close. Among the 5,500 away fans who travelled to the East Midlands, there also appeared to be little love for Van Gaal and his team; 18 months of footballing tedium have seen to that. They chose instead to remember a warmer, happier time in their United-supporting lives.
"Viva Ronaldo," they sang to remind home fans of one of the goalscorers on the clubs' last meeting, a League Cup semifinal in 2009. Reminiscing about such former glories and a song recalling winning the 1999 European Cup have become comfort blankets for United fans in their club's fade from grace. George Best, a hero from almost a half-century ago, got the loudest and longest chant of all, while Nemanja Vidic, the former club captain who had confirmed his retirement from the game on Friday, was also regaled in song.
United could really do with a leader like the Serb these days and it was telling that none of the current generation got a mention from the terraces. Rooney, an almost lone survivor of such golden days, did not receive any personal acclaim for the excellence of his goal. Nor did Blind or Mata.
A sum north of £250 million has been spent on this new United since Van Gaal took over in 2014. Yet this is an anonymous, colourless team with players like Morgan Schneiderlin (who had a poor night here) desperately short of the glory-times standard.
3. Derby's effort, belief falls short
United are not alone in having big money spent on their team to disappointing returns. Paul Clement, an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid, Chelsea and PSG, had £20 million lavished on his team when joining Derby in the summer -- big money in Championship terms -- and there is disappointment at being five points off an automatic promotion place. But once the Rams negotiated an anxious start, Friday's performance may go some way to recharging batteries for the main task in hand.
Even amid their current morass, Manchester United coming to town is a big deal though Clement's decision to pick the same team that lost 4-1 to Burnley on Monday night looked courageous. County had won just one of their past five matches -- a victory against Hartlepool United in the previous FA Cup round. Clement, who attended United's 1-0 home loss to Southampton last week, clearly fancied pulling off a similar coup to Saints boss Ronald Koeman.
Derby began by sitting deep with the aim of hitting on the break through Tom Ince and Nick Blackman out wide, both of whom would be feeding striker Chris Martin. It was not until immediately after Rooney's goal that either got a run on United's backline when Blackman, on loan from Chelsea, headed a Cyrus Christie cross into the arms of David De Gea.
It took almost 20 minutes for the next chance to arrive, but it was taken with a quality that United meanwhile struggled to find. Thorne seized on the deliberation of Schneiderlin to run onto Martin's clever lobbed pass and beat De Gea from close range to equalise, a direct but effective way to get at a United team with a distinctly soft centre.
It was a moment to regenerate confidence among the Rams and their fans. It was also a time for their United equivalent to quiver. Derby began to pile heavy pressure onto an increasingly disorganised opponent only for their own defensive issues to return when Blind and then Mata surged through to score United's crucial second-half goals.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.