The greatest compliment to Charlton Athletic may have come on the hour. Manchester United were leading the League One side, but by a solitary goal and Charlton were impudent enough to show plenty of resistance. And so Erik ten Hag made a triple substitution.
On came Marcus Rashford, Christian Eriksen and Casemiro and the Englishman duly scored a double, the second from the Brazilian’s pass, to take his tally to seven goals in six games. Ten Hag’s deluxe deputies duly helped United reach a third Carabao Cup semi-final in four seasons, and perhaps a third meeting with Manchester City at that stage in the same time. Yet while United posted an eighth successive win, it felt too close for comfort until Rashford’s late intervention. Harry Maguire and Tyrell Malacia were booked for fouls as Charlton sought an equaliser. Instead, Rashford took United a step nearer a first trophy since 2017.
Charlton, with a side comprised largely of free transfers, loans and youth-team graduates, can reflect that they were beaten by a brace from perhaps the most in-form player in the country and one from an £85 million buy. If Antony is a one-trick pony, at least it is quite a trick. Charlton can console themselves with the thought that Arsenal and City let in goals with certain similarities to the Brazilian; it sometimes seems that he has trademarked the trick of cutting inside and shooting from 20 yards. If Premier League defenders have started to become more aware of it, Corey Blackett-Taylor, formerly of Tranmere, made the mistake of standing off Antony and affording him room to shoot. He duly found the top corner for his second goal in as many games.
At 22, Antony was the senior member of a distinctly youthful front four. The most impressive, however, was Alejandro Garnacho, who had two shots inside the first 10 minutes. The Argentinian tormented Sean Clare and, as he sought to double United’s lead, Ashley Maynard-Brewer had to claw away a curling shot.
The junior partner in a new-look attack was the 17-year-old Kobbie Mainoo, who showed some neat touches and a calmness in possession on his debut. The sight of the newcomer being replaced by the quadruple Champions League winner Casemiro may have seemed surreal.
Rashford finished the game as the striker, and extended his scoring run by first latching on to Facundo Pellestri’s pass and dinking a shot over Ashley Maynard-Brewer and then curling in an effort after Casemiro’s ball over the top. Yet Ten Hag’s initial selection showed why he is searching for a No. 9, with Wout Weghorst likely to arrive. Anthony Martial is never fit to play 90 minutes and this time he was given none. Anthony Elanga was a temporary solution as a striker; he found the net from Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s low cross but was offside. The Swede rarely resembled a player best suited to leading the line.
Meanwhile, with Bruno Fernandes suspended and Eriksen and Rashford on the bench, United almost unearthed a set-piece specialist. Fred was granted the chance to take a free kick within shooting range and rattled the post with a terrific effort.
He was one of a second-string side. Ten Hag prioritised Saturday’s Manchester derby as he made eight changes and one of those who retained his place, Malacia, is unlikely to start at the weekend. He had reasons to regret selecting his first-choice right-back, however, as Diogo Dalot limped off, potentially pitching Wan-Bissaka into a clash with City.
Charlton, meanwhile, now have to contemplate a meeting with Barnsley but, while Rashford’s double added a cruelty to the scoreline, the Football League’s last representatives in the competition acquitted themselves admirably. Now they are 56th in the pyramid, with only two wins in their last nine League One matches but there was a time when Charlton had an annual date at Old Trafford. Now this was a first trip for 16 years. Their vocal fans set about compensating for lost time, and the League One club brought 9,000. They were given something to cheer in their side’s willingness to counter-attack. The in-form Scott Fraser shot over just after the break though Tom Heaton, making a belated first start for United 21 years after joining as a trainee, was rarely troubled.
It was nevertheless a day to savour for an Old Trafford season ticket holder, too, though the Mancunian Dean Holden was found in the away dugout. Just his fifth game in charge ended in a fashion Burnley, Nottingham Forest, Wolves, Bournemouth and Everton will remember - with Rashford on target and United winning – but with a reminder that Charlton were accustomed to visiting such stages rather more frequently.