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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Victory in Milan, but is this another false dawn for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger?
Arsenal were triumphant in Milan despite their recent miserable form.
Arsenal ended their losing run of four matches with an excellent performance away to AC Milan in the Europa League. This competition has the potential to save the Gunners season and the commitment from every player suggested that they want to go all the way.
They were coming up against a team full of confidence under Gennaro Gattuso. Milan hadn’t lost a match since the end of December. The Serie A club hadn’t conceded a goal in six and had won five of those inside ninety minutes.
These sides came into this fixture in remarkably different form, but football is played on grass and not on paper.
Despite Milan having more attempts, it was Arsenal who created the better chances. They had a couple of half-chances early on before the opening goal.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has had a hot and cold start to life in a Gunners’ shirt, but he was one of the best players on the pitch in Italy. His goal was emphatically taken as he drove the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
It is important to capitalise when you are on top, especially away from home in European competitions and Arsenal did just that. As the first-half progressed, they continued to create the better opportunities. Both Danny Welbeck and Mkhitaryan had good chances to double the visitors’ lead, but they were squandered.
In stoppage-time of half-time, Arsenal scored a second to give them a commanding lead in the tie. It was a great move from the team and Mesut Ozil found Aaron Ramsey who coolly rounded Donnarumma before putting the ball into the net.
The first-half performance from Arsenal was one of the best that supporters have seen this season. They were better all over the pitch and showed the work rate that they had lacked in previous weeks. Milan pushed in the second half, but they couldn’t penetrate the Gunners’ defence.
Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi were both excellent. Arsene Wenger will be hoping that both are returning to their best after some uncharacteristic errors in previous matches. The centre-back pairing made eight ball recoveries and were always in the right position on Thursday.
Patrick Cutrone is a teenager with a big future, but the young striker had no luck out of the Arsenal defence and that will encourage the manager.
Another player to emerge with credit is Danny Welbeck. The ineligibility of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the injury of Alexandre Lacazette means that the Englishman started the game up front for Arsenal. It was a huge opportunity for him after being pushed down the pecking order at the club and he took it with both hands.
The Englishman worked tirelessly and caused problems with his movement.
Although his final product wasn’t great, he was a constant threat and led the defensive effort from the front. Welbeck will never be a leading Premier League striker, but he is effective in matches such as this one. He deserves more opportunities during the run-in.
It would be too soon to get carried away for Arsenal fans. There are still questions regarding Arsene Wenger and the work rate of the players, but this was an excellent performance that finally provides the club with positive momentum. They have had a miserable few weeks and the supporters can get excited about their team once again.
When the draw was made, a lot of supporters checked their expectations when it came to the Europa League. Milan were the overwhelming favourites, but Arsenal have taken a dominant position in the tie and should be able to finish the job in London.
If they can do that, they will move into the quarter-final stage. Although it will be difficult to win it, they will have as good a chance as any.
There have been many false dawns for Arsenal in recent years and this could be another one. That said, it takes enormous character to go away to a huge stadium like the San Siro after a poor run of form and win comfortably.
Considering the criticism that they have had for their lack of desire, few would have thought the Gunners to be capable of a result like this.
It is now up to Wenger to prove that he can get this level of effort and performance out of his players on a regular basis. The Frenchman remains in a difficult position with no margin for error. If he is going to keep his job, he needs to finish the season strongly and win the Europa League.
It won’t be an easy challenge, but this performance and result will give him hope that he can upset the odds to claim his first European trophy.
Everton’s 4-1 defeat to Southampton adds to growing problems at Goodison Park
Everton’s 4-1 defeat to Southampton this Sunday left them just two points above the relegation zone in a season that is going from bad to worse for the Toffees. The four goals conceded by David Unsworth’s side meant they have now let in 28 goals from just 13 matches.
Although Gylfi Sigurdsson’s long range strike was a positive for Everton, there was little else to write home about in a game that Southampton dominated.
It has been well documented that the Toffees’ summer recruitment has been a big reason behind their lack of success, with insufficient signings in key areas. One of those areas was highlighted profoundly on Sunday, with Leighton Baines going off with a knee injury in the first half.
Everton did not have another natural left-back in the match-day squad, so centre back Ashley Williams was brought on to replace the Englishman, with Aaron Lennon shifted into a wing-back role.
Lennon is not a natural in that position and is far more effective further forward and, somewhat predictably, two Southampton goals originated from his side.
Although this defeat comes as a fresh blow to Unsworth, it is the managerial uncertainty surrounding the club that is causing Everton major issues.
Ronald Koeman was sacked by chairman Farhad Mohsiri nearly five weeks ago now, and the club still seem no closer to appointing his successor.
Martin O’Neill was touted as the leading favourite for the vacany earlier this week, but whether he would be tempted into returning to club football after a stint with Republic of Ireland remains to be seen.
Marco Silva has also been approached, with Everton rumoured to be willing to pay £20 million in compensation to prize him away from Watford, according to the Hertfordshire Mercury.
Nonetheless, the Hornets have firmly stated that they will not allow their manager to take the reins at Goodison Park.
Unsworth was put under more pressure on Thursday, with Everton losing 5-1 to Italian side Atalanta, their heaviest home loss in Europe.
It is difficult to blame the former Sheffield United defender for most of his side’s troubles currently, with Everton’s players clearly shot of confidence.
He has made some major changes to the club’s personnel, switching from the winger-less system that Koeman employed, while bringing Aaron Lennon, Kevin Mirallas and Sandro Ramirez back to the first team.
He has also given promising full-back Jonjoe Kenny a run in the team ahead of the under-performing Cuco Martina.
It can also be argued that Everton are missing the experience and quality of long-term absentees Seamus Coleman, Ross Barkley and Yannick Bolasie – three players who would surely be some of the first names on the team sheet at Goodison Park.
However, all of the players above were injured during the summer, a window in which Everton spent nearly £200 million on players.
Gylfi Sigurdsson has shown glimpses of his quality, scoring an excellent goal against Southampton, and Jordan Pickford has performed as well as could be expected, but many other Everton signings have taken time to settle into the side.
Davy Klaassen, signed from Ajax for £23.6 million, and Martina did not make it into the match day squad against Southampton. Meanwhile, Sandro had struggled until his goal against Atalanta on Thursday.
Wayne Rooney, who is the Toffees’ 2nd top scorer, has even been dropped to the bench in recent weeks.
Overall, Everton desperately need a managerial appointment to bring stability and confidence to a squad that is currently sliding towards the Premier League relegation zone.
Although Toffees fans are against the appointment, Sam Allardyce could provide the self-belief necessary to steer the club clear of the drop.
He is renowned as a specialist in helping teams survive, but it is worth remembering the success he had in charge of Bolton, getting to the last 16 of the 2005/06 UEFA Cup and coming within one place of qualifying for the Champions League during his final season in charge of the Trotters.
Regardless of who does take over at Goodison, the key for Everton is getting a manager into the club ahead of January and a transfer window that could be crucial in defining the club’s season.
Arsenal’s Europa League group – who are their opponents?
For the first time in over two decades – and for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s tenure in north London – Arsenal will be playing their European football on Thursday nights in the Europa League.
Failure to finish in the Premier League top-four has left the Gunners fighting it out in second-tier competition, yet few will bet against them emulating rivals Manchester United and going all the way.
A favourable draw has merely compounded their position as favourites, with Wenger’s men pitted in Group H against BATE Borisov, German outfit FC Koln and Serbian side Red Star Belgrade.
To save you from having to Google their opponents – a la Tottenham’s Danny Rose – The Boot Room has taken a look at the three teams that stand between Arsenal and a spot in the Europa League knockout stage.
Perhaps the toughest side that Arsenal will face during the group stages, BATE Borisov have Champions League pedigree and last featured in 2015/16, facing then reigning champions Barcelona.
On that occasion they held a good account for themselves, missing out on the knock-out stages by a single point after beating Italian side Roma and earning a point against Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen.
On a domestic level they have dominated the Belarus league in recent times – winning the previous eleven titles – although they are struggling this season, sitting in third place after 19 matches, to date.
A Champions League qualifier defeat to Slavia Prague of the Czech Republic over two legs will hardly leave Wenger – or Arsenal fans – quaking in their boots when they meet in the group stages.
The Bundesliga side may be embarking on European football for the first time since the 1992/93 season but they certainly have previous in this competition, ending runners-up in 1985/86 edition.
On their day they can be a dangerous side – last season they held Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to away draws in the league – and they will look to stifle Arsenal’s attacking style of play.
But with their main-man Anthony Modeste, who scored 25 goals in the Bundesliga, leaving for a lucrative deal in the Chinese Super League the Germans shouldn’t prove to be much of an obstacle.
Red Star Belgrade
Completing the line-up for Arsenal’s group is Serbian outfit Red Star Belgrade, a side that have reached the group stage of European competition for the first time since the UEFA Cup in 2007/08.
To make it to here they’ve already beaten Floriana of Malta, Irtysh Pavlador of Kazakhstan, Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic and Russia’s Kuban Krasnodar so they’re already well-versed this year.
Red Star – the lesser known side of Serbia’s capital alongside Partizan Belgrade – were narrowly pipped to their domestic title last year by their rivals but, on their day at home, they’re a tough side.
The two sides have actually met in Europe before, way back in 1978 when the north London side actually lost 2-1 in the last-16 of the UEFA Cup, and revenge will no doubt be on the cards this year.
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