Manchester United were dealt a major blow to their UEFA Champions League hopes as they fell to an agonising 3-4 defeat against Copenhagen.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic saved Manchester United’s blushes yet again, coming off the bench to score a second-half winner as the Red Devils overcame an early deficit to beat Championship-side Blackburn Rovers 2-1 at Ewood Park on Sunday.
United manager Jose Mourinho in the build-up to the clash had spoken about respecting the competition and opposition but chose to bench some of his side’s biggest stars, including Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David de Gea.
Young Marcus Rashford was chosen to lead the line with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jessie Lingard and Anthony Martial giving him support in attack. Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera started in midfield with Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young the fullbacks for the night, as Luke Shaw was deemed fit for only the bench.
Blackburn are struggling to stay in the Championship, currently in 23rd place, but played anything like a team in crisis as they stunned the Red Devils to take the lead in the 17th minute.
Dutch striker Marvin Emnes outmuscled Marcos Rojo near the edge of the box before smartly slipping in his strike partner Danny Graham, who rifled a shot into the top corner to leave Sergio Romero with no chance. Chris Smalling had been marking the ex-Swansea striker but he was embarrassed by his opponent’s superb off-ball running with United manager Mourinho applauding the slick move on the sidelines.
United were stung and responded well, upping the tempo almost immediately, coming close to equalising via Ander Herrera but the Spaniard’s shot was parried to safety by Blackburn keeper Jason Steele in the 24th minute.
The visitors weren't to be denied for long, however, as Mkhitaryan’s delicious outside-of-the-boot through-ball from near the halfway line set up Rashford for a one-on-one. The young striker showcased nerves of steel, rounding Steele before calmly finishing into an empty net three minutes before the half-hour mark.
Blackburn refused to be cowed down, launching the odd counter and could have had taken the lead again but Craig Conway’s shot from an acute angle failed to hit the target in the 37th minute.
United had the last meaningful chance of the half, with Young’s deep cross from the right finding Jesse Lingard but the winger’s glancing header was off target and the sides went into the interval with the scores at 1-1.
Mourinho must have been concerned by his side’s lack of cutting-edge in front of goal as he made a double substitution in the 62nd minute, sending on Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in an attempt to force the result and avoid an energy-sapping replay or worse, an upset. Lingard and Martial gave way after putting in some industrious shifts, but with virtually nothing to show for it, will not have helped their cases for regular starts in the near future.
Ibrahimovic almost scored within seconds of coming on, but Herrera’s low cross from the right somehow managed to evade the Swede as United pressed more and more for a winner.
And it came with the Pogba-Ibrahimovic tandem coming to the fore yet again. The French midfielder’s raking long-ball found the Swede with plenty of time in the box after successfully beating the offside trap and he calmly side-footed the bouncing ball into net with 15 minutes remaining. After his midweek heroics in the Europa League against Saint-Etienne when he scored a hat-trick to put United in pole position to qualify to the next round, the 35-year-old continues to prove that age is just a number.
Blackburn weren't done yet and when Sergio Romero fumbled a shot from distance, the resulting tap in was bundled in but the linesman correctly raised the flag for offside much to the relief of the United goalkeeper.
United’s reward for edging Blackburn is a trip to Premier League leaders Chelsea on the 11th of march. The Blues had beaten Wolves 2-0 on Saturday fairly comfortably and the FA Cup quarterfinal between them will be an intriguing battle for many reasons. Not least because of Jose Mourinho’s return to his former side, a club which still revers him despite their calamitous 2015-16 season which led to his acrimonious sacking.