MAY 13 — After a season which has seen the headlines largely dominated by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Manchester United’s campaign is coming to a climax with a different — and much younger — man coming to the fore.
On Thursday night United advanced to the Europa League final, keeping alive their chances of returning to the Champions League next season, with a nervy 1-1 draw against Celta Vigo at Old Trafford securing a 2-1 aggregate triumph.
Although the crucial goal was scored by Marouane Fellaini, it owed much more to Marcus Rashford, whose brilliantly angled cross put the ball on a plate for the big Belgian to convert an unmarked header at the far post.
Rashford, 19, was undoubtedly the man of the tie after scoring the only goal in the first leg last week, and United can be greatly relieved that a teenager is playing such a prominent role in maintaining their hopes of rescuing their largely disappointing season.
It’s just as well that Rashford has stepped up, because the season-ending knee injury suffered by Ibrahimovic last month could have also proved to be season-ending for United as a whole, considering how the giant Swede, although not always contributing to the general play as much as he might, was basically carrying the team in terms of goal-scoring.
With Wayne Rooney permanently out of favour, Anthony Martial making slow progress and Rashford only delivering in fits and starts, the opening few months of the season were a repetitive story for the Red Devils: if the mighty Zlatan didn’t score, nobody else would.
While Ibrahimovic netted 17 Premier League goals before his campaign came to a premature end, United’s other three strikers have only managed 13 between them (Rashford five, Rooney and Martial four apiece), and nobody else has scored more than Juan Mata with six.
So when the only regular scorer in this goal-shy team went down with the most important phase of the season still to play, it was a natural worry that United — however good their defence might be — would simply lack the necessary goals to lift the Europa League trophy.
But with one goal scored and another created, so far it has been Rashford to the rescue, serving not only to keep the team’s short-term picture looking reasonably rosy but also underlining the sense that he is a real star in the making.
It’s only just over a year since Rashford made his first team debut, bursting onto the scene with two goals in a 3-2 victory over Arsenal and then netting the only goal against Manchester City a few weeks later, but already he has come a very long way.
Not only is he already leading the line for United, Rashford has also established himself as a regular in the England squad, scoring his first international goal in a friendly victory over Australia last year.
And just in case there was still any doubt, his performance against Celta on Thursday night provided more evidence that this young man has the tools to go a long way.
The game was largely dominated by the Spanish visitors, who controlled most of the possession and produced plenty of attractive, constructive approach play without being able to break down United’s well-organised and well-disciplined defence until they equalised with five minutes left, by which time it was too late.
Although they were excellent at the back, United had embarrassingly little to offer coming forward. There was an occasional flash of pace from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the odd powerful burst from Paul Pogba, but otherwise nothing much at all.
Being a centre forward in such a poor attacking team is no easy task, with the lack of ammunition making that role a thankless task of repeatedly chasing down the opposition defenders and waiting in vain for the ball to come anywhere near you.
Nevertheless, Rashford still managed to do enough to catch the eye, complementing his goal-making cross with his team’s best piece of individual play in the second half, beating two defenders with a dazzling piece of footwork to create space for a shot which was well saved by the Celta keeper.
United have effectively given up on their Premier League season, with manager Jose Mourinho basically deciding that finishing fourth was an unlikely outcome and therefore concentrating all his efforts on the Europa League.
They now have one more hurdle to climb, and it would be appropriate if Rashford starred again in the final against Ajax, the Dutch club which is renowned more than any other for developing young talent.
United’s most realistic hope in the final, other than a penalty shoot-out, is nicking a 1-0 win. The ‘0’ part, despite Ajax’s attacking threat, can be achieved thanks to the defensive excellence Mourinho has instilled.
But the big challenge for United will be finding the ‘1’, because the bluntness of their attacking play severely limits goal-scoring chances. With the fast-rising Rashford on the charge, however, at least there is some cause for optimism.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.