This briefly looked as though it would be another one of those evenings for Manchester United, like against Rochdale in this competition a few months ago, when they would fail to break the back of stubborn lower-league defence despite dominating in terms of both possession and territory. But on nights like these, it helps to have Marcus Rashford.
Rashford scored the opener, enforced the second and set up the third as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side comfortably overcame a dogged Colchester United outfit to pass through to the EFL Cup semi-finals. Despite the many unanswered questions which surround Solskjaer's reign, a potential first trophy is now coming into view.
Fourth-tier Colchester had already eliminated Crystal Palace and Tottenham from this competition and are unbeaten in League Two since mid-October, making this a potential banana skin. Going to a penalty shoot-out, like against Rochdale in the third round, would have been deemed unacceptable but Rashford, Anthony Martial and a Ryan Jackson own goal ensured the job was done inside 90 minutes.
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Solskjaer named a surprisingly strong team, with Rashford, Martial and Harry Maguire all starting. It was a sign of respect for not only the competition - which the Norwegian has desires of winning - but opponents that had already collected two Premier League scalps.
Some - not least Solskjaer himself - were drawing comparisons between Rashford and Cristiano Ronaldo only last week but his first-half performance was their reminder not to get too carried away. It began with two devilishly-struck free-kicks, the second of which was spilled by goalkeeper Dean Gerken, but he squandered several better goal-scoring opportunities.
Twice Andreas Pereira bypassed Colchester’s low deep-set defence, twice Rashford miscontrolled to waste the opening. A few minutes later, he tried one of those dipping efforts on goal after stepping inside from the left that are quickly becoming his trademark. It bounced out harmlessly for a throw-in.
But United’s first-half problems were not confined to Rashford. Every member of Solskjaer’s attack was struggling to find a way through Colchester’s disciplined back line. John McGreal’s visitors to keep the game goalless, their approach typified by Gerken being cautioned for time-wasting in the 38th minute. United needed to find solutions in the second half.
Ironically, the breakthrough came once Colchester finally pushed up. A rare counter-attack from the fourth-tier side ended with right-back Jackson shooting tamely at Sergio Romero. The ball quickly found its way to Rashford, in the space Jackson had vacated. He cut inside, evaded Thomas Eastman’s sliding tackle and finished emphatically.
It was an exceptional goal regardless of the opposition, and further evidence that Rashford is becoming one of Europe’s deadliest counter-attacking players. He piled further misery on Jackson minutes later, applying pressure which forced the full-back to convert Mason Greenwood’s cross into his own net.
United were now cutting through Colchester with ease and assurance. Their third goal was their best, with yet another delicate ball over the top of the defence by Pereira. Rashford connected this time, squaring across the penalty area for Martial to convert while sliding at the far post. A place in the last four was finally assured.
Much like last Thursday’s Europa League win against AZ Alkmaar, a 10-minute blitz of goals at the start of the second half had settled the contest in United’s favour. Perhaps this team can play the quick, intricate and incisive passing that Solskjaer wants to see against less ambitious sides, but much tougher tests will come if they are to make this their manager's first trophy.