This time last year, the mood at Manchester United was positively toxic. The club was on their third manager of the campaign, they would soon be out of all three Cup competitions in addition to being hopelessly adrift in the Premier League, the football was awful, the players had lost all stomach for a fight and there was mutiny in the stands.
The turnaround in eight months under Erik ten Hag, then, has been startling and, while there is a long way to go before anyone can say with any conviction that United are back, the Dutchman has wasted no time propelling the club back into contention for leading honours.
Newcastle now stand between United and a first trophy for six years at Wembley on February 26, when old money will meet new, and Ten Hag will hope the League Cup can be a springboard to bigger things in a way it once was — twice, in fact — for Alex Ferguson.
Of course, there are no guarantees of that. United hoped League Cup success would prove a launchpad back in 2017 under Jose Mourinho, who also won the Europa League three months later. Yet it was not too long before United were back at square one and in desperate need of reinvigoration. The Solskjaer bounce did not last but Ten Hag’s rebuild looks to have much sturdier foundations.
Nottingham Forest never looked like pulling off a huge comeback. The damage had been done in the first leg and the tie was a foregone conclusion even before two goals in three second-half minutes from Anthony Martial and Fred. Arguably more pleasing than the goals for United, though, was the return of Jadon Sancho for the first time in over three months.
The last time Newcastle faced United at Wembley, they were rolled over 2-0 in the 1999 FA Cup final by Ferguson’s eventual treble winners but Eddie Howe’s in-form side will surely provide a much stiffer test for Ten Hag’s men.
The two clubs — currently separated only by goal difference in the Premier League — appear locked in something of a running battle now for both silverware and Champions League qualification and have an opportunity to claim not just a trophy but potentially a psychological advantage over the other.
With this the first of eight games this month and United holding a 3-0 advantage, Ten Hag could have chosen to rest players but he was taking no chances with his team selection. The only concession was Marcus Rashford on the bench, otherwise it was pretty much a full strength side.
There was no place in the squad for Austria midfielder Marcel Sabitzer, the deadline-day loan signing from Bayern Munich, but Sancho was included for the first time in three months after a “reset” period to address his physical and mental condition. Martial was also back in the fold after missing the past four matches through injury.
Harry Maguire, United’s captain only in name these days, was again among the substitutes. It is hard to believe Ten Hag will not make more effective use of his squad over the coming weeks, given the congested schedule and the risk of burnout later in the campaign with United still fighting on four fronts. But the message here was clear: start strong, get the job done and then we can consider changes.
Ten Hag will not have been unhappy that it was goalless come the interval. In the main, United managed the game fairly well and were close to nicking the lead in stoppage time when Antony cut the ball back for Casemiro and his clipped cross was headed against a post by Wout Weghorst.
Forest lost the former United forward Jesse Lingard to an injury in the warm-up, which saw Emmanuel Dennis drafted into the starting XI, but their main threat, much like in the first leg, was the pace and running of Brennan Johnson. He did well to burst away from Raphael Varane and Casemiro and into the penalty area but sent his shot straight at Tom Heaton and also fashioned a chance for Dennis only for Sam Surridge to get in the way of his team-mate’s effort.
The biggest roar of the night came when Sancho was introduced for his first appearance since October 22. His return was part of a bold strategy by Ten Hag to try to recalibrate the England winger and if he can find form over the next few months the manager may come to view it as a new signing.
The Daily Telegraph in London
Bayern signing shines on debut
Mainz: Joao Cancelo needed little time to make an impact for Bayern Munich as he helped his new team reach the quarter finals of the German Cup with a 4-0 win at Mainz.
The Portugal left back started on the right wing one day after joining on loan from Manchester City and he set up Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting to open the scoring in the 17th minute on Wednesday.
It was Bayern’s first win of 2023 after re-starting the Bundesliga with three draws and the first time since 2020 that the Bavarian powerhouse reached the German Cup quarter finals.
Cancelo made the most of some passive defending from Mainz as he lofted a cross to the far post for Choupo-Moting, then Thomas Mueller set up Jamal Musiala to shoot in off the right post in the 30th.
Joshua Kimmich struck the post with a free-kick.
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