Sunday 18 February 2018

Paul Hayward: Rashford resurgence points toward brighter future for renewed Red Devils

Manchester United's Marcus Rashford. Photo: Carl Recine/Action Images via Reuters
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford. Photo: Carl Recine/Action Images via Reuters

Paul Hayward

On a day when Manchester United's potency returned, Marcus Rashford went back to his dazzling early promise. When they stand to applaud a young player leaving the field here, it tends to mean a great career is forming.

It was always youth that made Old Trafford feel most alive.

The gains for Jose Mourinho were more numerous than Rashford's return to form. Mourinho disappointed United's fans with his team selection, then delighted them with the performance. He won the tactical battle with Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, put one over his old club, and boosted United's chance of finishing in the top four.

Across the piece, Mourinho could take credit for his team's tenacity at the back and terrier-like qualities in attack, where Rashford and Jesse Lingard made light of the decision to rest Zlatan Ibrahimovic with Thursday's Europa League second-leg against Anderlecht in mind. In the defensive midfield area, where Chelsea's N'Golo Kante has been the king, Ander Herrera shaped the game. A theory did the rounds that as many as eight of this United starting XI had their best games for the club in recent memory.

Intense, mobile and well-organised, United knocked Chelsea out of their title-winning groove, smothering the threat of Eden Hazard (who was man-marked by Herrera), and drawing Diego Costa into a series of energy-sapping feuds. Mourinho said: "I want to say that I was convinced even before the FA Cup [tie between the clubs] that controlling the two players who play behind Diego [Costa], and controlling the Chelsea full-backs with two wide men, would create lots of problems." He was awarding himself a tactical gold star.

Before kick-off, the Premier League trophy sat on a desk in the press room. It was on a tour of England's grounds, apparently. To see it glinting under the lights was to remember how long ago 2013 now feels. That was the summer of United's last title win.

In the four years since, the fancy pot has not looked remotely like returning to this stadium.

In this game, though, United were recognisably Manchester United.

They were no longer the side that draws nine from 16 home games; no longer a blunt force, labouring to score.

Once the teamsheet dropped showing Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the bench, with Mourinho saying 'Zlatan' was "very tired," trepidation crept across the home crowd. The apparent emphasis on taking the Europa League route to Champions League qualification next term looked like an admission of defeat. Instead, Mourinho's young front two had David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Kurt Zouma in a spin, hustling them and running beyond them high up the pitch, which Chelsea seemed to resent. Conte's men certainly failed to come up with a response.

There is no guarantee that United's flaring into life will be sustained. Their form across the season has been too uneven for their fans to believe in overnight transformation.

Rashford, though, has returned from the mists he drifted into after a sensational start to his United career caused everyone to forget he was a teenager, and therefore deny him the right to go through ups and downs in his development.

He returned to Old Trafford for his second season with everyone expecting wonders. Mourinho, though, is not known for his youth opportunity schemes, and Ibrahimovic became the automatic choice at centre-forward, forcing Rashford into a bit-part role out wide.

Those luminous early displays faded into memory. And the familiar error kicked in. Rashford was judged like a fully mature pro, a finished item. In reality this 2-0 win over Chelsea was only his 25th league appearance. It was also his most dramatic. It reopened the title race and rewrote United's prospects.

There was a goal in there, too: a seventh-minute finish from an exquisite pass by Herrera, preceded by a hand ball (Hander Herrera, someone joked).

Rashford's sprint beyond Luiz set the tone for the game. "It was a clear pass, he looked up and we made eye contact. Then he [Herrera] put the ball exactly where I wanted it," Rashford said. "It's something needed in this team, because we've been lacking in understanding and goals."

Luiz has been superb at the back for Chelsea. But Rashford left him ragged.

He was direct, quick, relentless and skilful with ball at feet. His standing ovation when Ibrahimovic replaced him after 82 minutes evoked the great Old Trafford send-offs to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Ryan Giggs - not that he should be burdened with those comparisons, talent wise.

But why not celebrate a fine homegrown talent finding his feet again? The first hints of it were against Sunderland eight days ago, when he came on and scored. He was excellent too in Anderlecht. Plainly, being allowed to play through the centre is greatly to his liking.

Mourinho thought the early timing of Rashford's goal gave United "confidence and stability," and said: "The kid played fantastically well."

United's manager also declared: "We keep two windows open to play Champions League football [next season.]" Rashford, meanwhile, kept the hope alive that United can still find young stars and put them on this stage to grow and learn.

Irish Independent

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