Manchester United have two unlikely heroes to thank for their place in the semi-finals of the FA Cup: Odion Ighalo and Harry Maguire.
Both were on target in Saturday’s hard-fought 2-1 victory over Norwich City at Carrow Road and both deserve the credit that will come their way.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had made eight changes to the side that dispatched of Sheffield United so easily at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, with only Maguire, Luke Shaw and Bruno Fernandes retaining their places and there was a rust to their performance here.
Indeed, as the game headed into extra time, it looked as though the Norwegian would come to regret his squad rotation.
With no fans allowed at Carrow Road the ‘magic of the cup’ was non-existent and the slow tempo of the first half, along with the empty stands and the muggy weather, meant the game felt more like a pre-season friendly than a crunch clash with a huge amount of significance for both sides.
Norwich were in the FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1992, while Solskjaer is hunting for his first silverware as United manager.
For all their possession in the first half, though, United lacked the penetration, spark and powerful attacking threat they had shown just three days before.
Jesse Lingard, who missed the midweek game with a stomach bug, had two shots, which was the most of any player on the pitch in a first half that did little to stir the imagination and in which neither side mustered a shot on target.
Ighalo playing as a lone striker struggled for service while the three behind him in Lingard, Juan Mata and Bruno Fernandes couldn’t connect in the way Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood did at Old Trafford.
The final ball was lacking and there was little rhythm to United’s attacking play.
It was somewhat surprising Solskjaer didn’t call upon the star power on his bench at the break but United still got the breakthrough they were craving when Ighalo scored with their first shot on target in the 51st minute.
It was an instinctive finish from the Nigerian, who offers a different option to United’s attack and has now netted five times in just four starts since signing on the final day of the January transfer window.
Many pundits mocked the deal at the time but Ighalo has proven a shrewd piece of business.
Credit to Norwich, though, they responded well to falling behind.
Emi Buendia’s free kick was flicked on by Onel Hernandez only for Ben Godfrey to make a goalline clearance and let United off the hook.
The reprieve wouldn’t last long, though. Todd Cantwell – who had been by far the Canaries’ most threatening attacker – beat Sergio Romero with a sweet strike from 25 yards that swerved past the United goalkeeper and levelled the game with just 15 minutes of normal time remaining.
Just like United, the hosts had found the back of the net with their first shot on target.
With time running out, Scott McTominay and Fred made way for Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic, who added some energy to United’s midfield. While Fred impressed in his recovery and defensive duties, the duo lacked the ability to spark the attack.
As the game headed towards extra time, Timm Klose made United’s job a little easier as he bundled Ighalo to the ground on the edge of the area and was shown a straight red.
Solskjaer then elected to unleash Martial in a four-pronged attack. “Keep pressing” and “keep out wide” were the demands from the United bench and the visitors’ pressure eventually told.
With such a strong attacking presence, it was surprising that Maguire was the match-winner, with the centre-half stroking home his third goal of the season after a moment of Pogba wizardry in the build-up.
A trip to Wembley now awaits United thanks to not only Maguire but their other unlikely hero, Ighalo.