Manchester United’s ‘cup team’ played like they had a point to prove.
There were players here determined to prove to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that they deserve to be considered more than a back-up plan – and that is no bad thing for a manager who has been left so frustrated in his attempts to strengthen his hand this window.
Having intimated he will need to split his squad in two – one team for the serious business of the Premier League and Champions League, and another for the cup – he was reminded of the hunger within the ranks to break up a first XI that has become too accustomed to picking itself.
In truth, he’s still some way short of a title challenging roster without Jadon Sancho, defensive reinforcement and arguably genuine competition for Anthony Martial. But there were players on show at Brighton with ambition and credentials to figure more prominently in his plans.
After Saturday’s dramatic 3-2 win against the same opposition, this was a far more comfortable affair.
But it might not have been if not for Dean Henderson’s razor-sharp reactions to deny Leandro Trossard around the hour mark when United led by just the single goal.
The England goalkeeper shot out an arm to push Trossard’s powerfully-hit effort from close range around the post.
That’s two clean sheets in as many games for Henderson – albeit in this competition. But with ongoing doubts surrounding David de Gea, it is hard not to compare the rivals’ records so far this season, with the Spaniard conceding five goals in his opening two games.
Henderson did not return from a successful loan at Sheffield United to sit on the bench. Especially in year that ends with the European Championships.
He is back to stake his claim for the No1 spot – and every performance like this will only intensify the pressure on De Gea.
Then there is Eric Bailly – commanding alongside Victor Lindelof, who he may soon displace as Harry Maguire’s partner in central defence.
Late on – and with the game won – Bailly was still snapping into challenges on the halfway line to preserve that precious clean sheet.
Solskjaer, who ideally would’ve liked to have brought in a top quality addition at centre back, still believes there is a player in Bailly, so long as he can maintain his fitness.
Aggressive in the tackle, with pace to burn and the ability to play out from the back, he may yet dovetail perfectly with Maguire ahead of the erratic Lindelof.
There was a goal for Scott McTominay, who has found himself usurped by Nemanja Matic.
Alongside him in midfield, United’s only new signing so far Donny van de Beek showed a deftness of touch to set up Juan Mata for United’s second – and similar invention when Diogo Dalot so nearly got himself on the score sheet.
The Holland international has had to be patient, with question marks over whether he can play in a three with Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes.
That remains to be seen, but this was a glimpse of the imagination and execution he can bring to United’s midfield. It can only be a matter of time before Solskjaer is forced to find space for him.
While Mata – excellent on the night – may have to give up hope of more regular game time, he underlined his own value with a goal and an assist.
Pogba’s deflected free-kick rounded off the scoring and moves United within one win of a third semi final under Solskjaer.
But his ambitions are greater than the Carabao Cup – even if any trophy would be welcome to the Norwegian in his second full season.
After last term’s third placed finish and a return to the Champions League, he wants a squad capable of continuing the upward trajectory he’s set in motion.
Key to that was a transfer window which he hoped would see him complete his squad overhaul.
He has wanted a right winger and a top-class centre forward for more than a year, yet he is still waiting.
Two short-term fixes started against Brighton – Daniel James and Odion Ighalo, yet it increasingly looks like neither will provide the necessary solution.
Links with forwards Luka Jovic and Edinson Cavani are intriguing as we approach transfer deadline. Both would provide serious competition to Martial in a manner that Ighalo cannot.
James, meanwhile, has already been displaced by Mason Greenwood on the right.
As impressive as Greenwood’s rise has been, depth of talent is required for United to make the next step – as well as a sprinkle of stardust to provide a boost after the optimism generated by the second half of last term.
Sancho fits that description perfectly – but only time will tell if Solskjaer secures the target he covets more than any.