Manchester United’s canter of a victory in the opening leg made this an easy night. That was the theory and so the practice proved: Nottingham Forest were dominated and by the final whistle Erik ten Hag’s men victorious – courtesy of late Anthony Martial and Fred finishes – and had booked a Wembley date with Newcastle later this month.
The final will be the same as the FA Cup showpiece of 1999 which United claimed, and is a chance to end a trophy-drought that stretches back six years to when José Mourinho’s vintage claimed the Europa League against Ajax in Stockholm.
Two seasons ago the same competition’s decider was lost to Villarreal and in 2018 the FA Cup showpiece also ended in disappointment, so for the club and Ten Hag’s nascent project, the hope will be that 26 February proves a triumphant, watershed moment in the bid to be a true force again.
This prospect was set-up after the evening began with a question. With such a comfortable cushion of being 3-0 up at kick-off what XI might Ten Hag send out? The answer was strong, headed by Casemiro, whose inclusion despite Christian Eriksen’s long layoff showed the manager meant business while, surely, crossing everything that his alpha midfielder did not suffer injury.
He could be pleased, though, with the first half as Forest, who lost Jesse Lingard in the warm-up, suffered 45 minutes of chase-ball as Antony, Raphaël Varane, Bruno Fernandes, Luke Shaw and Casemiro dominated possession.
The hope for Cooper’s men, knowing this was billed as mission (virtually) impossible, was to strike early and see where their evening might go. After Shaw pinged a cross in, the closest they came to this was via Emmanuel Dennis, Lingard’s stand-in. He drew a foul from a backtracking Wout Weghorst, Gustavo Scarpa floated in the free-kick from the left and Fernandes headed clear.
Forest’s challenge was illustrated by the XI they faced containing the 18-year-old jet-heeled Alejandro Garnacho, who is usually a reserve and may be United’s finest prospect since Marcus Rashford. He showed why in the best attack so far: Weghorst laid off to Fred and his instant pass forward had the Argentinian racing in. An old-fashioned shoulder dip and body-swerve bamboozled Neco Williams, the visiting right-back, and down went Garnacho. This was in the area and replays clearly showed a shove yet Peter Bankes gave nothing despite the referee being in close proximity.
United’s possession-share – at around 73% – was used to pin those in yellow back, the ball being thudded about quickly. Shaw, again, got in along the left and skimmed a cross in along the grass. Result: Forest scrambled clear, as it was when Shaw, next, chipped a free-kick on to Varane’s head. The Frenchman directed the ball back across Wayne Hennessey and he stuck out a leg to save. The goalkeeper, moments later, dived low to clutch a fizzing Garnacho cross, the youngster seemingly able to maraud as he liked along the same left flank as Shaw.
Missing from this ascendancy was a United goal and, now, Forest went close when a Brennan Johnson burst was too powerful for Lisandro Martínez and his effort had to be beaten out by Tom Heaton before the defender, recovering, cleaned up for his side.
Antony is among the more one-footed footballers of recent memory but what a foot – his left – it is. Shaw’s short corner offered the latest evidence: on receiving the ball the Brazilian unleashed a piledriver that went close to making it 4-0 on aggregate.
Yet if the contest remained deadlocked at the break, United had a mighty scare when a Johnson raid along the right was followed by his finding Dennis. At close-range the wideman’s effort was beating Heaton but Sam Surridge, Forest’s centre-forward, was in the way. The final act before the tea and oranges featured Weghorst, whose header smacked off Hennessey’s right post.
As the clock ticked on towards the final whistle United’s task was, simply, to keep closing Forest out. Garnacho took responsibility with several dashes at Williams. One of these came in a breakaway in United territory. After tapping to Casemiro, Williams clumsily pulled him back, Bankes saw, waved an arm for advantage but, when there was none, mysteriously failed to award a foul.
This was the start of an irritable passage that had its apotheosis in the VAR checking for a red card for a Johnson hand in Garnacho’s face. The winger escaped and after Garnacho forced a Hennessey save off he went for Jadon Sancho, whose entrance ended three months of inaction due to physical and mental wellbeing issues.
Rashford and Martial had joined Sancho and between them United finally scored, Martial cannoning home from yards out. Ten Hag raised arms in salute, then came Fred’s clincher, from another Rashford assist.