Manchester United set up an EFL Cup final against Southampton despite their 17-match unbeaten run ending with defeat at Hull City in the semi-final second leg on Thursday.
Jose Mourinho’s side led 2-0 from the first leg but, making five changes, they struggled to impose themselves at the KCOM Stadium.
Tom Huddlestone put the hosts ahead from the penalty spot after four players had tangled in the area after a set-piece, Marcos Rojo’s pull on Harry Maguire’s shirt the most visible offence.
It gave Hull, 19th in the Premier League, poise and confidence, but their hopes of just a second domestic cup final in their 113-year history were dashed when Paul Pogba poked through the legs of Maguire and into the bottom corner from 10 yards.
Rojo headed against the bar for United and the Tigers’ Oumar Niasse also struck the woodwork before he turned in David Meyler’s cross to set up a tense finale.
But the visitors held on and former Chelsea boss Mourinho could move level with Brian Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson on four League Cup wins at Wembley on 26 February.
Former boss Ferguson said earlier in the week that Mourinho had “got to grips” with the managerial role at Old Trafford – and a major final will surely only further build confidence as United remain in the hunt for a Champions League qualification berth and in three cup competitions.
The EFL Cup may not top the list of objectives for Red Devils fans, but their team have shown a hunger to beat three Premier League teams on the way to Wembley in Hull, West Ham and Manchester City.
On his 54th birthday, Mourinho shuffled his pack. Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard were preferred to Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan and United were deservedly beaten.
There were contentious moments, notably the penalty award which BBC Radio 5 live pundit Ally McCoist deemed “soft” and United had calls for their own spot-kick when Chris Smalling went down under Tom Huddlestone’s challenge after the break.
Mourinho seemed irked by officiating after the match, but on the night his side had less of the ball, fewer shots than their hosts and were probably asked to work far harder than he would have liked.
There were positives. Marcus Rashford’s pace on times troubled the hosts, Zlatan Ibrahimovic showed touches of flair – notably when bringing a fine save from David Marshall – and most importantly, United will bid for a fifth League Cup win.
However, with progress comes dilemmas. Mourinho will now see the depth of his squad tested, with the final arriving on the same day United were scheduled to face Manchester City in the league and four days after the second leg of a Europa League tie at Saint-Etienne.
Hull, on paper at least, stood no chance before kick-off. On 26 of the 27 previous occasions a side had lost a League Cup semi-final first leg by two or more goals they have gone out.
But ploughing on through adversity is a necessary pre-requisite at the KCOM Stadium.
Robert Snodgrass – who has created 30 more chances than any other Hull player this season – was left out amid two bids for his services, midfielder Jake Livermore has been sold and recent acquisition Ryan Mason will likely face a long lay-off after fracturing his skull. All things considered, this was a display to be applauded.
The fact the starting line-up included four players who have each played less than five games this season in Shaun Maloney, Jarron Bowen, Niasse and Josh Tymon, perhaps underlined coach Marco Silva’s priorities.
But Bowen was neat and tidy, while Everton-reject Niasse proved a constant nuisance. The experience of Tom Huddlestone was key as he picked intelligent passes in midfield and new recruit Lazar Markovic came off the bench to help craft the second goal.
With Hull’s league position so precarious, would the distraction of a cup final proved a nuisance for Silva?
He has a bigger battle to fight but this win showed that even with key names out, he has a squad which may have the character needed for a successful scrap against the drop.