The League Cup has been extremely good to Jose Mourinho since he arrived in England in 2004 but on Wednesday it dealt him and his Manchester United side a hefty blow as they were knocked out at the quarter-final stage by Bristol City.
Mourinho is a four-time winner of the competition and had never previously been eliminated over 90 minutes in his eight seasons in the country, but the 2-1 loss suffered by United to the second-tier Robins was a more than fair reflection of the evening’s proceedings as the holders were outdone for work ethic, character and attitude long before Korey Smith’s dramatic 93rd-minute winner.
United looked off their game from the start. The returning Zlatan Ibrahimovic looked a long way shy of fully fit as he stumbled his way through the first half, while Paul Pogba was perhaps lucky not to see red for a knee-high challenge on his comeback following a three-man ban for his sending-off at Arsenal earlier this month.
Elsewhere, theire was a omplacent air about some of United’s play, and while a deflected Ibrahimovic header and a Marcus Rashford pile-driver both came back off the post, there remained a feeling that the home side were more than in the contest throughout.
Bristol City’s endeavour was rewarded in the 51st minute when a wonderful flowing move down the left found Joe Bryan in space and the left-back rifled a wonderful strike high across Sergio Romero into the far corner of the net.
United were shocked into action and their response was almost immediate, but it came as a result of more than a touch of fortune.
Referee Mike Dean decided Korey Smith had deliberately blocked Paul Pogba as the Frenchman strode towards the penalty area, and while the award of a free-kick seemed generous, it would come back to bite the home side still further.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic stepped up and drove a low shot beyond Luke Steele with the help of a deflection off the poorly-constructed wall in front of the City goalkeeper.
From there, the Red Devils appeared set to step up their game, and with the introduction of Romelu Lukaku up front they had a more compelling threat in their attack but just couldn’t seem to kick themselves out of their lethargy.
Whenever they did develop a promising attack, the last ball or final shot just seemed to be snatched at. Lukaku over-hit a pass to the unmarked Rashford, the England striker sliced another effort, while Luke Shaw followed a wonderful challenge with a heavy cross with men to aim at.
As time ticked down and extra-time looked to be on the horizon United opened up at the back and after a couple of near-misses Smith turned home Matty Taylor’s through-ball to lift the roof off Ashton Gate.
Bristol City’s had been the kind of performance too rarely seen from many of the Premier League’s lower lights these days, who too often are fearful rather than fearless and are stunted into a containing game as a result.
Lee Johnson’s side march into the last four entirely on merit after becoming the first lower-league club to knock four top-flight outfits out of the League Cup since Sheffield Wednesday 28 years ago.
As for Mourinho’s men, this needs to serve as a wake-up call. Although he also claimed that Bristol City had been “lucky”, Mourinho did add afterwards: “In the first half we lacked intensity, and when I say intensity I mean not just physically but mentally.
“For some of us it was just one more day in the office, probably a day that some of them didn’t even want to come to the office. For the Bristol boys it was a big, big day for them and in the first half you could see that.”
No matter how many changes the manager made they still had enough international class to better deal with the task at hand, and with a Premier League title already out of reach, they are now practically left with just the Champions League and FA Cup to play for.