Nottingham Forest 0-3 Manchester United (Rashford 6′, Weghorst 45′, Fernandes 89′)
Erik ten Hag said he would do anything to end Manchester United’s longest trophy drought in 40 years and he will get no better chance in his debut season in English football. His team stuttered and spluttered for long periods of a first half in which they killed off this EFL Cup semi-final. Nottingham Forest had waited 31 years for a domestic cup semi-final, back when they came at a rate of at least one per year. Their thoughts must turn to Premier League survival.
Ten Hag picked arguably a stronger team than the one that lost to Arsenal, thanks to the return of Casemiro at the base of midfield. Any side that has Marcus Rashford in it has a chance, these days. The question is not whether Rashford would beat Forest centre-back in a 100-yard dash, but whether he would run all the way round the track and lap him. Worrall has other talents; Rashford has many more than most.
Are these the best days of Rashford’s career? We are not talking pure potential anymore, nor those dreary months when nothing would go right and he must have wondered whether it would ever quite feel right again. Instead he is recovered, relentless and ready not just to help this team, but lead it. It is not the quantity of the goals, but the collection of attributes demonstrated within them: pace, poise, speed of thought and outrageous skill under pressure.
Steve Cooper may feel aggrieved at the scoreline and components of the performance. Forest were the better team between United’s first and second goals. Morgan Gibbs-White is a one-man counter-attacking band: win the ball, progress the ball, pass the ball. He created a Sam Surridge goal that was ruled out for a fractional offside (although Surridge should not have strayed), occasionally tormented Casemiro and was generally more responsible than most for keeping the City Ground in full voice.
Much was made of Gibbs-White’s transfer fee this summer, a £25m initial price that could rise significantly with add-ons. But any pre-emptive criticism now looks foolish. Gibbs-White has made more Premier League starts this season than in the rest of his career to date but is a gem of a talent. Clubs have paid far more than £25m for an attacking midfielder who is prepared to graft off the ball and gallivant with it. If Forest do stay up this season, no one player will have been more important. Late treatment and substitution is of deep concern.
Forest’s problem, as has been obvious too regularly this season, is their defensive fragility. Cooper opted for a three-man midfield of new signing Danilo, fellow Brazilian Gustavo Scarpa and Remo Freuler. Scarpa’s name might suggest that he can hound players like a terrier, but nominative determinism missed its shot here. Forest could be undone by one quick give-and-go to expose a central defensive partnership for which extreme speed is not a superpower.
Every time Forest built up a head of steam, which was not infrequently, they vigour was throttled by the awareness of everyone present that danger was only ever six seconds away. It increased the desperation for them to make good on the moments of promise and broke their mood when those moments did not deliver. You cannot be so slack at the basics and hope to thrive in such company.
United began a run of 10 games in 32 days in Nottingham. At some point, somewhere, something is going to have to give, whether in league, cup or Europe. But Ten Hag is not ready to compromise yet, and why would he? They doubted whether anyone could fix this club, let alone him. He is the formalities of a second leg away from a shot at something genuinely meaningful.