United on their way to Wembley
Manchester United 4-2 Derby County
The destination went unmentioned. At FA and Carling Cup ties the length and breadth of the country, supporters, with a blend of optimism and self-delusion, inform any listeners that they are going to Wembley. Most are incorrect, some stunningly wrong. Manchester United's fans made no such claim, but they are headed to the national stadium anyway.
As English, European and world champions, they can afford to be blasé about the prospect. That attitude appeared to have spread to the players when Derby mounted a second-half revival. United's excellence beforehand, however, meant they overturned Derby's first-leg lead and booked a date with Burnley or, in all probability, Tottenham Hotspur.
It is an indication of their strength and an indictment of their rivals when United can progress to the final when effectively fielding their second-string side. Sir Alex Ferguson equipped himself with the most valuable insurance policy in football but, though the substitute Cristiano Ronaldo converted a late penalty, the tie appeared decided before his entrance. Derby, with a late rally that included Giles Barnes' brace, proved otherwise, but it was telling that Ferguson felt confident enough to remove Gary Neville with a quarter of the game remaining and grant James Chester a United debut.
With a rookie in the heart of the United defence and a midfielder - Darren Fletcher - at right-back in the deciding stages, others among the Premier League's affluent and ambitious with aspirations to silverware could be chastising themselves: is it really that hard to win the Carling Cup?
Ferguson suggested it was. "Finals are always hard to get to," he said. "The young lads have done fantastic to get there. It was a great performance in the first half. In the first half, they [Derby] were over-run and we could have been out of sight."
It is scarcely United's top priority, but they merited progress for a scintillating start. They have become expert at 1-0 wins in the Premier League recently. This was a chance to prove more prolific, and one they accepted. Combining urgency with trickery, they dissected the Derby defence with a ruthless elegance. United's reserves had underperformed in defeat at Pride Park a fortnight before, but they rectified that with their incision and acceleration.
Stirred but not shaken by their first-leg defeat, United swept into a three-goal lead inside 35 minutes. Just when Derby were hinting at defiance, Nani provided an injection of the inventive. Accepting Ryan Giggs' cross-field ball, just inside the Derby half, he jinked infield before unleashing a wonderful dipping shot. Roy Carroll got a hand to it, but was unable to prevent the Portuguese from levelling the aggregate score.
Six minutes later, United were ahead. Swift passing took the ball from Carlos Tevez to Danny Welbeck and on to John O'Shea, who calmly placed his shot beyond Carroll. The Irishman's subsequent guilty glance towards the assistant referee was that of a player who suspects he is offside. He was not, courtesy of Gary Teale.
The Derby winger's dubious understanding of the offside law proved unfortunate again. When Rafael da Silva whipped in a cross from the right flank, Teale lurked behind Tevez before the Argentinian headed in. Meanwhile, Nigel Clough sat glum-faced, and not just because he had selected the seat next to Robbie Savage in the dugout.
A fourth almost arrived in majestic fashion, the overlapping Rafael exchanging passes with Giggs before thrashing a shot into the side-netting. Instead, Ronaldo concluded United's scoring after Carroll had tripped Tevez.
Only when Kris Commons threatened to emulate his first-leg winner with a viciously swerving long-range strike did Derby appear likely to provide an upset. Commons, like lightning, does not strike twice, but he came seriously close. When Barnes, his replacement, scored the spot kick after Jonny Evans tripped Paul Green and curled in an injury-time free kick, it was reward for the spirit shown over two legs. It meant a defence with 10 successive league clean sheets was breached by the side 20th in the Championship and that Clough's charges acquitted themselves far better than their predecessors, the worst side in Premier League history.
"There are huge positives from it," said the Derby manager, who had compared his team unfavourably with his former Burton charges after Saturday's defeat to QPR. "The first goal was the killer for us, but we kept going and we kept playing and we kept plugging away and showed a bit of character which after Saturday was what we were looking for. The lads gave the supporters something to shout about."
They did, but United's next generation secured a result from another time as Ferguson defeated Clough.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Rafael da Silva - Because of a hamstring injury, his contribution only lasted 41 minutes but the Brazilian sparkled. Playing almost as a right winger, his alliance with Giggs confounded Derby. "His penetration was fantastic," said Ferguson.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Ferguson confirmed that his youngsters will be playing in the final though his Carling Cup team has been forged from United's past and future, with Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville playing prominent parts. As Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney have been used over the semi-final, presumably both meet Ferguson's criteria for eligibility.
DERBY VERDICT: Relegated from the Premier League last year, they are in danger of demotion to League One now. The manner of their defending for United's second and third goals showed why yet, by Championship standards, Clough has the makings of a decent side. Over the two legs, Commons, Barnes and the precocious Miles Addison all showed themselves to be genuine talents. But reversing a slide is never easy.
WALKING WOUNDED: United were hit by injuries with Rafael (hamstring) and Evans (ankle) among those affected. Anderson went to hospital for an X-ray on an ankle problem and Nani limped off before the end.
FOREST FIRE: The Derby fans launched into a chorus of "Stand up if you hate Forest." Their rivals' former No. 9, Nigel Clough, unsurprisingly remained seated.