There was to be no giantkilling at Sixfields on Tuesday evening as Cobblers’ superb run in the EFL Cup came to an end at the hands of the mighty Manchester United.
Jose Mourinho’s men eventually managed to run out 3-1 winners in front of a record Sixfields crowd of 7,798.
Cobblers were far from disgraced as they produced a spirited and battling performance to frustrate the Premier League giants for long periods, but ultimately two poor errors from Adam Smith and one moment of quality from Ander Herrera saw United through to round four.
Initially it appeared this was going to be a long and fruitless evening for Town with United utterly dominant from the first whistle.
The visitors controlled possession and dictated play, and their 17th minute opener was no more than they deserved, with Michael Carrick brilliantly finding the top corner with a first-time strike.
There was no immediate change to the pattern of play thereafter but finally Northampton did wake up and a five-minute flurry before half-time yielded an equaliser with Alex Revell rolling home a penalty after Sam Hoskins had caused panic in the away defence.
That gave the tie a totally different complexion and suddenly an upset appeared on the cards with United struggling to make much headway, however Herrera eased their nerves with a belting 25-yard strike into the bottom corner.
Smith then gifted Mourinho’s men an instant third, through Marcus Rashford, and that was the end of Northampton’s cup dream as United proved just a step too far after earlier shock wins over Barnsley and West Brom.
The gulf in quality shone through eventually but Northampton, whilst giving a good account of themselves, will feel disappointed with the manner of two of the goals which stemmed from their own mistakes and were so easily preventable.
Nevertheless, many of the fans inside Sixfields will walk away from this game feeling rightly proud of their side who went toe-to-toe with their illustrious visitors for long spells, with their focus now switching to Saturday’s League One home clash with Southend United.
United brought a wealth of quality with them and there was no bigger name than England captain Wayne Rooney who started up front for the visitors with fellow England internationals Carrick and Chris Smalling also involved.
For Cobblers, Rob Page made two changes to his side by recalling Gabriel Zakuani and Hoskins in place of Lewin Nyatanga and the cup-tied Paul Anderson.
The pattern of the match was set from a very early stage with United needing barely a minute to register their first shot on goal but Rooney’s weak effort was straight at Smith.
The visitors monopolised possession and caressed the ball around with ease against a Cobblers side content to sit back and let their Premier League opponents dictate play.
That ploy almost backfired, though, and they were fortunate not to fall behind on just seven minutes when Rooney somehow conspired to scuff wide from inside the six-yard box with the goal at his mercy.
Attacks at the other end were more few and far between and Town’s decision to allow United so much space always looked a risky tactic, and the visitors finally took advantage on 18 minutes, although the goal came about due to a moment of madness from Smith.
Inexplicably, Smith opted to pick up Matty Taylor’s back-pass which gifted United an indirect free-kick and though Rooney’s initial effort was blocked, the ball fell kindly to Carrick who curled a beautiful first-time shot into the top corner.
United were almost toying with their League One hosts such was the ease with which they knocked the ball about, and they almost had a second goal on the half-hour when Timothy Fosu-Mensah thundered a header against the crossbar.
Rooney turned the rebound home but the offside flag went up and Town almost capitalised on that let-off with their first real chance of the game.
It took 38 minutes to arrive but finally the home side attacked with numbers and purpose as Taylor picked out Kenji Gorre on the left who breezed past Fosu-Mensah before cracking a left-footed effort off the crossbar.
That woke the home fans and suddenly Cobblers were a different animal as they sensed an opportunity to level before half-time.
And that is exactly what they did when a poor piece of defending from the visitors gifted Cobblers a golden chance to level.
After failing to clear their lines, Daley Blind tripped Hoskins inside the penalty box for a stonewall spot-kick, which was confidently tucked away by Revell who sent Sergio Romero the wrong way.
The goal was met by a wall of noise by the home supporters and all of a sudden United looked ragged as Cobblers showed more urgency and willingness to take the game to their visitors.
They remained on level terms until half-time and though United resumed the second-half on top, their threat was blunted by some stout Northampton defending.
The best the visitors could manage were shots from range and Herrera almost broke the deadlock in that fashion when his 25-yard pile-driver crashed against the post.
For all United’s attacking quality, which also now included second-half substitutes Zlatan Ibrahimović and Rashford, they struggled to cut through a packed Cobblers defence that stood their ground, led by the excellent Zander Diamond.
But if the were any question marks over the away side’s quality, they were emphatically answered midway through the half with a fabulous strike to retake the lead.
After sending a warning shot moments previous, Herrera corrected his radar second time around and unleashed a venomous first-time drive from 25 yards which whistled past Smith.
Behind for a second time, Cobblers immediately went back on the attack but any hope of getting back into the game was snuffed out after another howler from Smith.
Herrera punted the ball up field and Smith hesitated over his clearance, allowing Rashford to nip in and score the easiest goal he’ll ever have as he blasted the ball into an empty net.
Marouane Fellaini almost added a fourth but Smith this time saved well with his feet and while Cobblers refused to buckle, the game then rather petered out with United cruising through and ending the home side’s excellent EFL Cup campaign in the process.
Cobblers: Smith, Moloney, Diamond, Zakuani, Buchanan, McCourt (Richards 72), Hoskins, Beautyman (O’Toole 53), Taylor, Gorre (Potter 66), Revell
Subs not used: Cornell, Nyatanga, Byrom, Sonupe
Manchester United: Romero, Rojo, Fosu-Mensah (Rashford 54), Smalling, Blind, Herrera, Carrick, Schneiderlin (Fellaini 72), Young, Depay (Ibrahimović 54), Rooney
Subs not used: Johnstone, Darmian, Lingard, Mata
Referee: Stuart Attwell
United fans: 944