Apt a tribute as it was, it probably was not the one Paul Ince wanted. As a Manchester United great returned to Old Trafford, his Reading side were condemned to defeat by a defensive midfielder who showed an eye for goal. It was a hallmark of Ince in his playing days and, when Reading were producing a display of admirable defiance, Casemiro delivered a five-minute brace. The breakthrough featured a late surge into the box that was reminiscent of the powerhouse in the United midfield three decades ago. The general feel, of a midfielder grabbing the game by the scruff of its neck, was one United relished in the 1990s.
Ince won the FA Cup twice as a United player and now Erik ten Hag’s team remain the only side in four competitions. The manager felt a contributor to their 11th successive win at Old Trafford: partly by fielding his strongest available midfield and attack and partly, after United’s first-half dominance brought 15 shots, but just two on target and no lead, sending out a side who showed more purpose. A talisman duly secured progress.
With an Ince-esque run, Casemiro surged on to Antony’s slide-rule pass and dinked a shot over Joe Lumley. The scorer pointed to the supplier in his celebrations: it was a belated first assist for United for the younger and more expensive Brazilian but it was harder to deflect credit for his second goal.
Casemiro whipped in a low shot from 25 yards after a pass from Fred; this was another goal made in Brazil. It proved a productive cameo for Fred: there was the unusual sight of a much-maligned figure scoring with a backheel flick, courtesy of Bruno Fernandes’ cross.
In 12 minutes, a frustrating evening had become a cruise. Arguably, the Old Trafford public savoured the third goal less than the departure of a former Liverpool striker. Andy Carroll scored in the 2012 FA Cup final but, more than a decade later, his latest and perhaps last contribution to the competition was more ignominious. He had somehow escaped a caution for a scissor challenge on Christian Eriksen, then got booked. Then, with clumsy stupidity, he clattered into Casemiro and was duly dismissed.
Perhaps it summed up Carroll’s night that Reading scored without him. The emphatic header came from substitute Amadou Mbengue when he caught Harry Maguire flat-footed to nip in and finish from Tom Ince’s corner; Ince assists at Old Trafford were more commonplace in the 1990s but the younger generation acquitted himself well.
Ince senior had been applauded by many United fans; time has proved a healer and there was recognition he was a terrific player for Sir Alex Ferguson, rather than barracking for captaining Liverpool after he left Old Trafford.
Even as Ince, part of United’s history returned, Marcus Rashford missed his chance to set a new record. He had equalled Dennis Viollet by scoring in nine consecutive games at Old Trafford and, when Ten Hag removed him with a quarter of the game remaining, the chance to become the first player to find the net in 10 in a row had passed him by.
Briefly it appeared as though Rashford had set a new mark, with a header that just crossed the line after Wout Weghorst had unselfishly aimed for his new teammate rather than goal. The goal was given and then, with Weghorst ruled marginally offside, chalked off by VAR: it was a problem Viollet never had to contend with.
It was not the only near-miss before the interval. A dozing Tyrell Malacia was robbed in his penalty box by Junior Hoilett. David de Gea produced a fine reaction save to keep out the Canadian’s shot. Without that, United’s dominance might still have brought a deficit. Ince’s back five made a series of blocks and defended with a commitment that belied their status as the side with the most away defeats in the Championship.
United had twice threatened with free kicks, with Eriksen curling one past the post and Rashford’s swerving strike drawing a save from Lumley. A trademark shot from Antony almost flicked the post on its way wide. Fernandes was twice off target, with a chip and then an angled shot following a driving run by Antony. Weghorst could have marked his home debut with a goal on the stroke of half-time and again in a scramble after the substitute Alejandro Garnacho had a shot saved. By then, however, United could start to plan for the fifth round.
As Ince knows better than most, an FA Cup run can kickstart a manager’s reign. He was part of the team who won Ferguson his first trophy with United in 1990. Both Ferguson and Roy Keane were watching and if too many United midfielders of the last decade would suffer by comparison with the Irishman and Ince, Casemiro feels a worthy successor.