Sometimes disappointment is merely opportunity in disguise. With Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia joining Manchester United’s lengthening injury list, Erik ten Hag made a virtue out of necessity when looking around for a left-back. Step forward Diogo Dalot, literally and metaphorically.
The Portuguese right-back not only negated Nottingham Forest’s biggest threat, Brennan Johnson, he also took every opportunity to step into central midfield to support Casemiro, freeing up the belatedly recalled Christian Eriksen, and finally converted the clinching goal 14 minutes from time to help United climb into third place.
They now have a six-point buffer, and a game in hand, on fifth-placed Tottenham, whom they visit a week on Thursday. Champions League qualification is now well within their control as they return their attentions to attempting to reach the last four of the Europa League and the FA Cup final, with Brighton standing in their way at Wembley on Sunday. Nottingham Forest, now 10 without a win, remain in the relegation zone.
It was Dalot’s first Premier League goal in his fifth season at the club and one neither he nor the United fans who celebrated enthusiastically behind that goal will forget as they continue their pursuit of glory on multiple fronts.
Antony, sustaining his hot form to help United cope without the injured Marcus Rashford, scored the first goal and made the second. Dalot, receiving Casemiro’s tight pass in the centre of midfield 14 minutes from time, in this fashionable inverted full-back position, clipped the ball forwards for Antony. Running on to take an exquisite return pass, he lifted his shot over Keylor Navas, but for whom Forest might have lost by a greater margin.
Dalot was joined by Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf in a new-look back four, in the absence of Raphaël Varane and Lisandro Martínez, both injured in the 2-2 home draw with Sevilla on Thursday. Then Marcel Sabitzer pulled up in the warmup to be replaced by Christian Eriksen.
Ten Hag said: “You know that when you have injuries you have to replace, but I’ve said often I think we have more than 11 starting players and I think we proved it today. The players on the pitch had a really good performance.”
Fernandes had played more deeply in the Europa League, when Sabitzer scored twice from the more attacking midfield role, but could have scored a hat-trick here in the 15 minutes either side of half-time alone, Navas tipping one brilliant shot against the crossbar. “I just said to Keylor – he only saved mine,” Fernandes quipped. “But the result is most important; we want to be in the Champions League next season. I want to get my goals, but team comes first.”
Maguire, playing on the right with Lindelöf on the left of this back-to-the-future central defence, ultimately performed creditably but was targeted by Forest initially.
The United captain was booked for hauling Taiwo Awoniyi to the ground as Forest’s No 9, starting for the first time in three months, prepared to sprint away from his own half.
United survived a VAR check when Renan Lodi’s corner struck Maguire on the arm and, from Morgan Gibbs-White’s delivery from the other side, Scott McKenna headed against a post.
But, with Eriksen back alongside Casemiro, as well as Dalot at times, United looked increasingly in control. Navas saved well from Fernandes and it was the Portuguese’s through ball that led to the first goal.
Danilo, distracted by Felipe, dithered deep inside his own half and Anthony Martial’s tackle invited Fernandes to play the perfect first-time pass. When Navas parried, Antony prodded home the rebound, for his eighth United goal this season.
Forest’s cautious shape against a side who had already beaten them three times this season, including the Carabao Cup semi-final, was understandable but it did invite United on to them.
No doubt Cooper was willing to take his chances on the counter-attack. Indeed, Forest could have equalised when Dalot’s heavy touch, when intercepting Gibbs-White’s intended pass for Johnson, offered Awoniyi a clear shot at goal. But he lifted his effort over the bar.
In Rashford’s continued absence with a groin injury, Martial did a decent job before tiring but should have wrapped up the victory, heading wide when free from Casemiro’s centre before being replaced by Wout Wegorst.
Antony continued to look lively, even going outside on to his right foot to draw another fine save from Navas, before he helped Dalot confirm United’s victory.
Forest, in the bottom three on goal difference, now face Liverpool and Brighton with Cooper seeking to retain confidence. “It is difficult,” he said. “I’m not going to hide away from what is a really poor run. We are taking responsibility for the position we are in but clearly we have to do more, me as well, and we have got to continue to try and find a better way.”