The injuries keep coming, the under-par performances continue, and the games are still piling up thick and fast for Manchester United thanks to Marcus Rashford’s extra-time winner. As the Red Devils’ season gets longer and more frenetic, it is the 19-year-old they can thank for showing the composure of a veteran to take them into the Europa League semi-finals.
Victory over Anderlecht at Old Trafford was a long time in coming, and they lost Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to potentially serious knee injuries along the way, but as they limp towards the last furlong of a long campaign they do have one very valuable asset hitting form at the right time in Rashford.
The tie looked as though it may be all-but over when Henrikh Mkhitaryan put United into a 10th-minute lead after Paul Pogba had released Rashford down the left with a sumptuous pass from inside his own half. But the home side were again guilty of letting their performance level drop and Anderlecht were more than worthy of parity by the time Sofiane Hanni levelled on 32 minutes.
It was a goal borne of complacency and miscommunication and came less than 10 minutes after Rojo was stretchered off with what appeared to be a seriously knee injury. First Luke Shaw failed to play the offside trap, and then Daley Blind didn’t react quick enough to the rebound after an initial shot had come back off the bar.
Thereafter United had the majority of the play but as has been the case so often this season they were extremely wasteful. Rashford burst through one-on-one with goalkeeper Martinez Ruben but knocked the ball too far wide and the chance was gone, then Ibrahimovic had three opportunities to strike but spurned each of them. The last of the trio was one of the best openings he has been given in a United shirt but his finish just underlined the fact it wasn’t his night.
With every chance Ibrahimovic had he looked increasingly unlikely to be United’s match-winner, and his enforced substitution at the end of normal time did nothing to alter the home side’s threat.
They continued to make chances without looking likely to do anything with them until Rashford picked up Fellaini’s knock-down and sent two defenders the wrong way with a delicious touch which gave him the chance to fire home with a left-foot shot.
It was his fourth involvement in a United goal in his last four games, a tally which matches his return in the previous 33 matches and proves that he’s peaking just when Jose Mourinho’s side need him most.
Mourinho will curse his luck in terms of injuries, but having questioned Rashford earlier in the campaign he will now be thankful for his young striker’s match-winning quality. While doubts will hang over Ibrahimovic’s involvement in the rest of the season and possibly beyond, there can now be no doubting that Rashford is the real deal.