Zlatan Ibrahimovic spared Manchester United’s blushes at embattled Blackburn as he fired Jose Mourinho’s men into the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Fighting on four fronts has left United with a bloated schedule that manager Mourinho has conceded could leave his team “in trouble” towards the end of the campaign.
A fifth-round replay would have been a punch in the gut for the FA Cup holders so the Portuguese called upon his stars to complete a comeback at Sky Bet Championship strugglers Blackburn, Ibrahimovic coolly sweeping home fellow substitute Paul Pogba’s pass to secure a 2-1 victory.
It was far from straightforward at a gloomy Ewood Park as Rovers attempted to join surprise packages Lincoln and Millwall in the quarter-final draw – a dream that came a step closer to becoming reality as Danny Graham smashed home a stylish opener.
The outstanding strike was matched in its quality by the Henrikh Mkhitaryan pass that put Marcus Rashford through to level in the 27th minute. But United struggled to build on the goal and Mourinho turned to his star-studded bench, the move paying dividends 15 minutes from time as Ibrahimovic smartly turned home Pogba’s clipped pass.
Charlie Mulgrew, pictured, and Anthony Stokes had goals chalked off in the second half of a match in which Blackburn’s performance belied that of a side sitting in the Championship relegation zone.
Owen Coyle’s men started brightly and, having tested United’s backline from the flanks, sent an early shot across the bows as Marvin Emnes’ dangerous drive called Sergio Romero into action.
It was a warning United failed to heed. Emnes showed excellent strength and skill to keep possession under pressure, before slipping through Graham to rifle an outstanding effort across Romero and into the top corner.
Ewood Park erupted and even Mourinho joined the home support in appreciation of a 17th-minute strike that seemed to belatedly jolt United into life.
Jesse Lingard and Mkhitaryan had tame efforts either side of an Ander Herrera drive that forced Jason Steele into a fine stop in the Lancashire drizzle.
That attacking intent bore fruit in the 27th minute thanks to Mkhitaryan’s vision and pass. The Armenian’s perfectly-weighted pass with the outside of his foot put Rashford through to easily round Steele and slot home.
Craig Conway came close to putting Blackburn back ahead under pressure, although United were dominating possession without creating clear-cut chances.
The second half began in a similar fashion as Romero stopped a low Conway strike as the visitors bossed the play without testing Steele – little wonder Pogba and Ibrahimovic were sent on in the 62nd minute.
The latter was inches from making an immediate impact as Herrera’s low shot just beat him, shortly before Blackburn endured similar frustration as Liam Feeney’s cross-cum-shot evaded team-mates.
Pockets of fans celebrated as Mulgrew found the net unaware the referee had blown and moments later it was the visiting support making themselves heard. United’s substitutes combined as Pogba’s excellent pass over the top found Ibrahimovic, whose first-time finish beat Steele.
The Swede’s first FA Cup goal relieved the tension, albeit only temporarily. Romero spilled a shot from the lively Connor Mahoney and then stopped Emnes, only for the ball to spill for Stokes to prod home - a leveller ruled out for offside.
Rovers pushed until the stoppage time but there was no stopping the FA Cup holders.