In February last year, a young Marcus Rashford made his Manchester United debut in the Europa League round of 32 and scored a brace to send his side into the next round of the competition.
Just over a year later, it was perhaps quite fitting that it was the teenage sensation that once again made a name for himself in the Europa League, firing in an extra-time winner as Manchester United overcame the dogged challenge of Belgian side Anderlecht to secure their spot in the semi-finals.
The 19-year-old was immense on Thursday evening at Old Trafford, standing head and shoulders above everyone else on the field as his extra-time goal ensured United spared their blushes.
Moved back onto the left-wing after the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the side, Rashford picked up where he left off against Chelsea with a blistering show of acceleration; with Anderlecht having to push up in search of a goal, he had acres of space in behind their back-line to work with all evening.
Poor Dennis Appiah – Anderlecht’s right-back – will be glad to get away from Manchester after being given a headache all night from Rashford; he simply couldn’t cope with the energy of the teenager.
Rashford was part of the move that got the ball rolling for the hosts inside the opening ten minutes on Thursday, running onto Paul Pogba’s sublime defence-splitting through ball before holding the ball up on the edge of the area and picking out Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s run to fire in United’s opener.
United seemed to sit deeper after taking the lead and allowed Anderlecht to push higher up the pitch – eventually getting their equaliser – but Rashford was one man who constantly tried to keep up a high tempo to the hosts’ attacking play and run directly at the visitors’ defensive line.
As Manchester United peppered the away goal in a dominant second-half there were still question marks over his ability to be clinical when it counts, blasting an effort into the side-netting when well placed before taking a heavy touch rounding the goalkeeper when he really should have scored.
Yet this will come in time, and as long as Rashford continues to play his football with the relentless energy and confidence that he is at the moment he will continue to be presented with chances.
The audacity to skip past two men, stand the ball up on the byline and produce an outrageous rabona cross to Paul Pogba was the sort of breathtaking play that leaves supporters with their mouths wide open, and to try something like that after 91 minutes of football already just shows where Rashford’s head is.
Anyone else still gutted this didn't hit the back of the net?
Brilliant from Rashford and Pogba… ? pic.twitter.com/aX1JlpaAJc
— BT Sport Football (@btsportfootball) April 21, 2017
Ultimately it was fully deserved – and perhaps scripted – that he sealed the tie for United, latching on to Marouane Fellaini’s knock-down on the edge of the area before performing a brilliant Cruyff-turn to send two Anderlecht defenders in the wrong direction, slotting into the corner with his weaker left foot.
Statistics of 30 completed passes, seven take ons, three chances created, one assist and one goal tell one story, but the fact of the matter is that when Manchester United needed somebody to stand up tall and propel their side to victory they found a leader in the unlikely shape of a 19-year-old local lad.
He showed a maturity and a temperament way beyond his years with the manner in which he kept plugging away at the Anderlecht goal, and even after completely messing up a clear one-on-one opportunity during the second-half, his resolve was truly tested but he never let his head drop at all.
A crucial goal and an assist on Thursday night means that he’s now been involved in four goals in his past four matches, the same tally as the previous 33 games, and it’s clear his confidence is growing.
It’s hard to underestimate just how big that goal against Sunderland was – despite the game already being won – and it’s moments like this that can prove to be a huge turning point in someone’s form.
With Ibrahimovic’s season all-but ended after hyper-extending his knee in a nasty landing, it’s likely that Jose Mourinho will revert to using Rashford as an out-and-out centre forward from now on.
Seven Premier League games remain, with a potential three more to come in the Europa League, and the performances of teenager Rashford could determine just how successful United’s seasons ends up.
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