Manchester United took a step closer to reaching the EFL Cup final as goals from Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini earned the Reds a 2-0 victory over Hull City in the first leg of the semi-final.
The Reds had to be patient against the resilient Tigers but, after a frustrating first half at Old Trafford, the impressive Juan Mata eased any lingering nerves by poking home from close range in the 55th minute.
After Paul Pogba had earlier struck a post with a free-kick, substitute Marouane Fellaini put further daylight between the two sides with a header late on.
With the comfort of a two-goal advantage heading into the second leg at the KCOM Stadium on January 26, Jose Mourinho’s men will be confident of progressing to Wembley to face either Southampton or Liverpool next month.
Despite the crucial Premier League encounter against Liverpool on the horizon, Mourinho – who has expressed his desire to lift the League Cup for the fourth time in his career – fielded an attacking line-up showing seven changes from Saturday’s FA Cup win over Reading but top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed out through illness.
The Reds almost took the lead as early as the second minute after Matteo Darmian broke up Hull’s passing sequence and sped down the left-hand side before picking out Mata, whose curling shot from the edge of the area was parried by Hull goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic.
Hull, currently bottom of the Premier League, have never previously reached this stage of the competition but the side under the new management of Marco Silva were intent on making life difficult for the Reds from the outset.
The Tigers threatened for the first time when Harry Maguire drove at the United defence but his low shot was comfortably saved by David De Gea, before Markus Henriksen was forced off with a shoulder injury after just 19 minutes and replaced by striker Abel Hernandez.
With the visitors pinned back in their own half, United established a firm foothold and created a series of openings, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan twice fired off target from Mata crosses before Antonio Valencia lashed another effort over the crossbar from a Rooney knockdown.
Pogba then tried his luck with a spectacular 35-yard shot which was palmed over for a corner by Jakupovic before Marcus Rashford also fancied his chances from distance with a swerving effort that flew narrowly over.
Although dominating possession, United could not find the decisive moment in the first half and were almost breached at the other end when Adama Diomande drifted offside prior to his downward header rebounding back off the post.
HALF-TIME MATCH STATS
Possession: United 71% Hull 29%
Shots: United 13 Hull 4
Shots on target: United 3 Hull 3
Corners: United 3 Hull 1
Clearly intent on killing the tie off as quickly as possible, the Reds increased the urgency at the start of the second half and Rooney was inches away from breaking the club’s goals record in the 51st minute after latching onto a Pogba pass – the captain’s low shot went agonisingly wide.
However, United didn’t have to wait much longer for the breakthrough as Mkhitaryan’s header from Valencia’s cross looped dangerously towards the back post, where Mata was lurking to steer the ball home from close range for his seventh goal of the season.
Rooney was made to wait until at least the weekend to eclipse Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time goal tally after being withdrawn just before the hour mark as Mourinho introduced some fresh legs in the form of Anthony Martial.
Hull went close to an equaliser against the run of play as Diomande’s acrobatic attempt from six yards flew over from David Meyler’s right-wing delivery.
After Jesse Lingard replaced Mkhitaryan, Pogba must have thought he had scored the second goal but his stunning 20-yard free-kick came back off the post.
United continued to have the lion’s share of possession and were rewarded when Fellaini, on in place of Mata, joined the Spaniard on the scoresheet after meeting Darmian’s deep cross with a well-directed header.
Martial almost added a third strike late on when his powerful effort was beaten away by Jakupovic but United had still taken a big stride towards a first League Cup final appearance since winning the competition for a fourth time in 2010.
Meanwhile, a ninth successive win in all competitions for the first time since 2009 sets the in-form Reds up nicely for the eagerly-awaited Premier League clash with Liverpool at the Theatre of Dreams on Sunday afternoon (KO 16:00 GMT).
FULL-TIME MATCH STATS
Possession: United 66% Hull 33%
Shots: United 21 Hull 6
Shots on target: United 6 Hull 3
Corners: United 8 Hull 2
United: De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Darmian; Pogba, Herrera; Mata (Fellaini 79), Rooney (c) (Martial 59), Mkhitaryan (Lingard 71); Rashford.
Subs not used: Romero, Fosu-Mensah, Blind, Carrick.
Hull: Jakupovic; Meyler, Maguire, Huddlestone (c), Robertson; Henriksen (Hernandez 19), Mason, Clucas, Tymon (Weir 90+1), Snodgrass; Diomande (Maloney 74).
Subs not used: Marshall, Clackstone, Bowen. Booked: Maguire