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Marcus Rashford seizes his chance to lead from the front as Manchester United sink Chelsea at Old Trafford

April 16, 2017 8:44 PM
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Responsibility will either burden you or inspire you and at an enlivened Old Trafford on Sunday Marcus Rashford took a significant step in his career as a Manchester United centre forward.

After his memorable introduction as a United player last season, Rashford has not seemed to enjoy the reality of life on the periphery. A career that began with an explosion has not exactly stalled but has lost momentum during a campaign dominated by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Here, in a strange-looking United team, Rashford was handed the opportunity to play in his favourite position, straight through the middle as a No 9. From the first minute to the moment late in the game that he left the field to applause from Ibrahimovic, the teenager excelled.

He will probably never beat the night he emerged from the shadows to score two on his debut against Midtjylland in February 2016 but this was probably his best performance since. Certainly it was his most complete.

That Rashford’s day featured a goal early on helped. At times he doesn’t look the most natural finisher but here, played clear of David Luiz by Ander Herrera’s lovely pass, he completed the job wonderfully, lifting the ball across Chelsea goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and into the far corner.

It was one of those finishes that looked easy and that is usually a fair indication that it was not. After his manager’s suggestion in midweek that United’s supporting cast were failing in regards to their goal tally, it was a perfectly timed contribution.

‘For his education this is a phenomenal season with an amazing range of different experiences,’ said Mourinho afterwards.

‘He is not scoring enough goals. Even today he does not score the first chance and looked as though he may not have confidence.

Mourinho is a little sensitive when it comes to Rashford, aware perhaps that he is handling one of English football’s most cherished young players. He was at pains Sunday to stress how many minutes Rashford has played under him.

That misses the point a little, however. The point is that Rashford has had limited opportunity to lead the line in the traditional sense. With Ibrahimovic performing so remarkably, United’s attacking style has been built around the more static play of the physically imposing Swede.

Rashford needs a different kind of service if he is to thrive and the way that he contributed to the worst afternoon of Luiz’s season Sunday showed just how dangerous he can be when offered the opportunity to run behind central defenders.

Much has been made of Luiz’s improvement as a defender since his return to Chelsea. However a system that includes three central defenders has at times provided the Brazilian with protection from the kind of direct running he faced on this occasion.

Rashford’s instructions to turn Luiz round towards his own goal were clear and it is a long time since he had been made to suffer like this.

This was not the relaxed, confident, stylish Luiz we have come to know this season. This was the Luiz we saw during his first spell at Chelsea. Hurried, stumbling and times rather hapless.

A mistake early on by Luiz gave Rashford his first chance. This time the United forward dragged his shot wide. But it set the tone of the afternoon and Rashford got the wrong side of his opponent far too easily when Herrera profited from an unseen handball to send him racing clear in the seventh minute.

With Herrera shackling Chelsea’s Eden Hazard so diligently and the league leaders unable to build any kind of momentum through possession, United were able to play effectively when they broke forward.

As Rashford worried the life out of Luiz and his defensive colleagues, Diego Costa at the apex of the Chelsea attack had one of those afternoons when he simply got in his own way.

Chelsea’s centre forward has carried the burden manfully this season. Unlike last season, it has been his football that has been memorable.

Here, though, the Spaniard couldn’t impose himself on the game and soon allowed himself to become involve in a running physical battle with the United defenders which, frankly, is exactly what Mourinho would have wanted.

This meant everything to the United manager, for lots of reasons. His selection and his tactical plan were, frankly, perfect.

In order to pull this result off, though, he needed key players to step up. From that point of view, Rashford ticked a big box on Sunday.


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