RIGHT up until the final whistle sounded last night to bring to an end a truly absorbing contest, the impossible had seemed possible.
Hull City, written off so many times already this season, had been set the daunting task of overcoming a two-goal first-leg deficit against Manchester United to reach their first League Cup final.
Only once before had a team managed the feat in the competition’s long history, but the Tigers – after twice taking the lead on the night, through Tom Huddlestone and Oumar Niasse – came mightily close to joining Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa side of 1994 in that exclusive club.
Head coach Marco Silva’s men did manage to shatter United’s 17-game unbeaten run, in the process becoming only the second Hull side to defeat the Red Devils in 31 meetings between the two clubs.
But, ultimately, Paul Pogba’s opportunistic strike midway through the second half was enough to send Jose Mourinho’s side through to meet Southampton in next month’s final.
Still, if there is a positive way to exit a cup at the semi-final stage with heads held high then this was it and the standing ovation afforded the home players by the 16,831 crowd at the final whistle was fully merited.
Silva’s men, in emulating the class of 1974 by beating United on home soil, served notice that the fight for Premier League survival is one they relish.
Certainly, if Hull can repeat last night’s standard of performance when these two clubs meet again next Wednesday in league combat then their wretched record at Old Trafford could also be in for a boost.
Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid the Tigers is that for so long they threatened to ruin Mourinho’s 54th birthday.
Despite seemingly being handed a belated gift by countryman Silva naming what equated to almost a second string Hull side, Mourinho could only watch in frustration as United laboured against the more enterprising hosts.
Such were the Red Devils’ struggles before Pogba’s decisive 66th-minute strike that the Hull goalkeeper David Marshall had been called into action just once.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was, predictably, the man to test Hull’s £5m summer signing with a delightful curled shot that the goalkeeper touched around a post at full stretch just before the break.
By then, Hull were already ahead. In a tussle between Harry Maguire and Marcos Rojo as Shaun Maloney’s corner floated across the six-yard box, the Red Devils defender was adjudged by referee Jon Moss to have pulled the Tigers man to the floor.
The decision seemed harsh, but Huddlestone was in an unforgiving mood, the midfielder making light work of beating visiting goalkeeper David de Gea from the spot.
United may have felt harshly done to by the penalty award, but Hull had been the better side in the first half and were worthy of their lead at the interval.
De Gea had twice been called into action to beat away efforts from Sam Clucas and Niasse before the Tigers broke the deadlock.
The latter came immediately after Michael Dawson had been denied a clear shot on goal by a wonderful tackle from Chris Smalling.
A sign of United’s growing desperation came early in the second half when Pogba threw himself to the ground in a vain attempt to win a penalty despite Dawson making no contact whatsoever with the world’s most expensive footballer.
Smalling, when claiming Huddlestone had blocked his attempts to meet a looping Michael Carrick cross, was given similarly short shrift.
Eventually, though, United got a much-needed break when Huddlestone, in blocking Marcus Rashford’s path to goal, could only divert the ball to Pogba.
He needed no further invitation, the £89m capture from Juventus firing past Marshall to restore FA Cup holders United’s two-goal advantage and smooth their passage to the February 25 final and a meeting with Southampton, who had beaten Liverpool on Wednesday.
The tie appeared to be as good as over but there was still time for the crossbar to be rattled twice in the final quarter.
Rojo was the first to go agonisingly close with a bullet header from a corner, before Niasse did the same at the other end from a pinpoint delivery from Evandro.
Niasse did then reduce the arrears five minutes from time after being set up by David Meyler, but ultimately there was to be no way back for Hull despite their tremendous efforts.
Hull City: Marshall; Meyler, Maguire, Dawson, Tymon; Bowen (Markovic 59), Huddlestone, Clucas, Diomande (Hernandez 70); Maloney (Evandro 64), Niasse. Unused substitutes: Kuciak, Robertson, Elabdellaoui, Weirl.
Manchester United: De Gea; Darmian, Jones, Smalling, Rojo; Carrick; Lingard (Rooney 79), Herrera, Pogba, Rashford (Fellaini. 90); Ibrahimovic. Unused substitutes: Romero, Mata, Mkhitaryan, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah
Referee: J Moss (West Yorkshire).