Marcus Rashford: The Man For The Big Occasions

Marcus Rashford’s Manchester United future has been the subject of much debate recently, but his match-winning performance in their 2-1 victory over Liverpool showed he still has an important role to play under Jose Mourinho…

There were boos from some sections of Old Trafford when Jose Mourinho replaced Marcus Rashford with Marouane Fellaini in the 70th minute. The decision to sacrifice an attacker was vindicated in the end, with Manchester United holding off Liverpool impressively in the closing stages, but the dissent from the stands was a measure of Rashford’s contribution.

The 20-year-old remains a fans’ favourite but he has been a peripheral figure for United since Alexis Sanchez’s arrival from Arsenal in January. Before Saturday, he had not started a single game since their FA Cup win over Yeovil Town at the end of that month. He had not started a Premier League game since their draw with Burnley on Boxing Day.

But after coming off the bench to help United beat Crystal Palace on Monday and with Anthony Martial sidelined by injury, Rashford was handed his chance. Mourinho had identified the channel between Dejan Lovren and right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold as Liverpool’s main area of weakness. Rashford exploited it ruthlessly.

His first goal showed the breadth of his talent. There was anticipation to latch onto Romelu Lukaku’s flick, pace to accelerate away from Alexander-Arnold, and composure to flick the ball back onto his right foot and fire his finish beyond Loris Karius. Gary Neville described it as a “very basic goal” for Liverpool to concede but Rashford’s execution was perfect.

It wasn’t long before he struck his second. This time, Rashford was simply in the right place at the right time, rushing into the Liverpool box as Virgil van Dijk blocked Juan Mata’s effort and powering the loose ball into the net with the help of a slight deflection. With barely a quarter of the game gone, United already looked out of sight.

Rashford had impacted the game brilliantly, and his man-of-the-match performance was all the more impressive given the circumstances. Three months ago, Mourinho was bemoaning his failure to capitalise on “unbelievable chances” during an FA Cup tie with Derby County. Against Liverpool, he scored with United’s only shots on target.

It is a dramatic turnaround but it might easily have been a different story. Out of form and facing fresh competition from Sanchez, many young players would have wilted in Rashford’s position. Instead, he used it as motivation. The period out of the team set alarm bells ringing in some quarters but Rashford shut out the noise and became even more determined to succeed.

That determination almost landed him in trouble against Liverpool – he was fortunate to avoid a second yellow card when he lunged in on Alexander-Arnold shortly before half-time – but his attitude will have delighted Mourinho. When he wasn’t tearing into Liverpool’s right flank at one end, Rashford was tracking back and protecting Ashley Young at the other.

Mourinho praised Rashford’s pace and movement in his post-match interview, but it was notable that he used his press conference to talk up his defensive contribution. “Our wingers made a huge sacrifice to control their full-backs,” he added.

Rashford’s hard work blunted Alexander-Arnold’s threat on the overlap and his attacking display was further proof of his appetite for the big occasions. He may have only turned 20 in October, but since his breakthrough two years ago, he has already scored crucial goals against Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and now Liverpool.

With his strikes against Anderlecht and Celta Vigo last season, no player was more important in United’s passage to the Europa League final. In the Champions League this year, he has already come up with group-stage winners against Benfica and CSKA Moscow.

It is an invaluable trait which could well come in handy again soon. United’s Champions League last-16 tie with Sevilla is on a knife edge ahead of Tuesday’s second leg, they face Brighton in the FA Cup quarter-final next weekend, and beyond that there are Premier League meetings with Manchester City and Arsenal. Who better to make the difference in those games than Rashford?

It is just another reason why the debate over his future was premature. Rashford may not start quite as regularly as he did before Sanchez’s arrival at Old Trafford, but his future looks as bright as ever after his latest heroics. The boos that greeted his substitution on Saturday suggest, quite obviously, that Manchester United supporters agree.