Bastian Schweinsteiger enjoyed a memorable Manchester United return, wrapping up a 4-0 FA Cup fourth-round win against Wigan on his first start for more than a year.
Few expected to see the 32-year-old in the club’s colours again after being frozen out by Jose Mourinho, falling so far down the pecking order that the club even wrote him off as an asset in their accounts.
However, Schweinsteiger has surprisingly returned from the cold and capped his first United start since January 9, 2016, by hooking home the FA Cup holders’ final goal of a 4-0 win against Wigan.
Eyebrows were raised at the former Germany captain’s inclusion, compounded by the rust visible in the opening stages against Warren Joyce’s well-drilled side.
However, Schweinsteiger’s fine cross brought with it Marouane Fellaini’s opening goal just before half-time, from which a much-changed United returned brightly.
Anthony Martial, given a chance to shine at Old Trafford, set-up Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan goals, before Schweinsteiger brought the biggest cheer of the afternoon by turning home from close range.
Anthony Martial: Has registered two assists in a game for the first time since August (vs Bournemouth)
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) January 29, 2017
The Red Devils’ return to winning ways was not straightforward throughout, as Wigan, managed by former United reserve-team boss Joyce, started well.
Questions over the decision to play Schweinsteiger grew after a sloppy start in which he not only misplaced several passes but gave away a free-kick that saw Callum Connolly sting the palms of Sergio Romero.
The Argentinian goalkeeper also had to be alert to stop a hopeful Max Power strike, but Wigan were reduced to hopeful efforts by the much-changed hosts.
They were, though, frustrating United at the other end, with the first opening of note arriving in the 24th minute when Dan Burn’s clearance led to a Juan Mata snap shot that went over.
Mkhitaryan was unable to get a telling touch on a Tim Fosu-Mensah cross when United next pushed as they struggled to turn possession into shots.
It was a display akin to those often seen at Old Trafford during Louis van Gaal’s reign, but Fellaini punctured the tension just before the break.
The hosts’ best chances were coming from wide areas as play bunched up in midfield and Schweinsteiger swung in a superb cross from the right that found Fellaini, towering over Connolly to beat goalkeeper Jakob Haugaard.
Penalty appeals against Smalling and an air shot from the well-placed Michael Jacobs preceded that goal, which Fosu-Mensah and Schweinsteiger attempted to add to early in the second half.
They were missed opportunities that Wigan threatened to capitalise on in the 54th minute as Romero inexplicably parried a cross into the path of David Perkins, only for his follow-up shot to be hit straight at the goalkeeper.
It was a moment Joyce’s side were made to rue within three minutes. Martial, moved out wide after an ineffective half through the middle, clipped in a lovely cross from the left to the far post, where Smalling powered home a header.
Mourinho brought on academy graduate Axel Tuanzebe for his debut after Fosu-Mensah sustained a knock, with Mkhitaryan scuffing wide before the unmarked Connolly failed to seriously test Romero at the other end.
With progress all but assured, United kicked on in the closing stages and scored a fine counter-attacking goal as Mkhitaryan drove into the box after passing wide to Martial and swept home the Frenchman’s cross.
Marcus Browne, on for his Wigan debut, saw an effort deflect wide as Joyce’s side looked for a consolation, with United goalkeeper Joel Pereira coming on for his debut before the match ended with a bang.
A corner from Wayne Rooney was headed towards goal, with Schweinsteiger hooking in from close range – a moment that delighted the Old Trafford faithful, who thought they had a fifth only for Martial’s late strike to be ruled out.