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'On the same level as Mbappe' - Why Marcus Rashford is smiling again

2:08 PM IST 04/12/22
Marcus Rashford Gareth Southgate England 2022 World Cup HIC 16:9
The Man Utd attacker has suffered a lot in recent years but he's now in a much better 'headspace', as his performances in Qatar have underlined.

As Marcus Rashford was replaced in the closing stages of England's win over Wales on Tuesday night, he was embraced by Gareth Southgate.

And the striker broke into a smile.

"I'd missed seeing it for a couple of years," former England international Theo Walcott admitted on TalkSPORT.

But then, Rashford hasn't had much to smile about for a long time.

Even after netting the first of his two goals against Wales, he sunk to his knees and raised his arms towards the heavens in memory of his friend Garfield Hayward, who had lost his battle with cancer just two days before the game.

That smile, then, may have been small, but it was significant. A man who has suffered on and off the field is at least enjoying his football again.

Just like Walcott, Rashford was a prodigy, exploding onto the scene as Manchester United's latest teenage sensation in February 2016.

But the homegrown hero didn't quite live up to the hype. During an era of gross incompetence at every level at Old Trafford, there was a fear that Rashford's potential would go unfulfilled.

As former United full-back Patrice Evra wrote on Betfair, "There was a lot of frustration around him because we know what he's capable of.

"When we think back to when he started under Louis van Gaal, you could see the passion there, and the way he would celebrate with his friends.

"Later, we had a Rashford who looked preoccupied and as soon as you do that and make one mistake, people kill you and say you're a bad player."

It didn't help that Rashford was unfairly targeted by certain sections of the British press.

Gary Neville compared him to David Beckham earlier this week, arguing that they had come under similar levels of media scrutiny.

There is one massive difference, though: Beckham attracted attention, and criticism, for his celebrity lifestyle; Rashford was attacked for his commitment to charity work.

During lockdown, United's social justice warrior took on the British government and won, successfully pressuring then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson into providing free meals for school children from underprivileged backgrounds even on holidays during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rashford earned an MBE for his efforts but the battle took a heavy toll on him. He was mentally drained by the end of his campaign.

"That's something I struggle with at times, not really my own performance, but other things off the pitch," he admitted to Sky Sports. "Too often last season I wasn't in the right headspace for games."

And it showed.

After hitting 43 goals in all competitions across his two previous seasons, Rashford scored just five times in 2021-22.

With United still in a constant state of chaos, it was even suggested that a transfer might be best for both parties.

However, the appointment of Erik ten Hag changed everything.

Rashford has described the Dutchman as "a joy to work with", crediting the new manager with creating "a completely different energy" around the training ground.

"That puts me in a better headspace and I just feel really motivated now," he told Sky Sports.

However, Ten Hag's tactics have also played a part in Rashford's renaissance.

"I am more effective," the 25-year-old enthused. "I am in more dangerous positions and that’s what it’s about for me.

"I can help the team win games. I can score goals and get assists, and that’s the aim.

"He likes possession, but he is also in favour of us going for the kill – and that’s what I am all about, so I am enjoying my time under him."

The improvement is obvious. Rashford racked up eight goals and three assists during the first half of the season, propelling himself back into the England squad just in time for the World Cup.

Remember, Rashford hadn't represented his country since Euro 2020, through a combination of injury issues and poor form.

Before Qatar 2022, his last touch in an England shirt had been his penalty miss against Italy.

With his first touch here, he controlled a pass from Harry Kane, before cutting inside and scoring his first World Cup goal, just 49 seconds after coming on in the 6-2 rout of Iran.

It was his double against Wales, though, that has really made everyone sit up and take notice.

While much of the media attention focused on Phil Foden, Rashford also started and turned in an even more impressive display.

His pace made him a constant threat and while he missed England's best opening in the first half, shooting straight at the goalkeeper after being put through by Harry Kane, he didn't let it affect him.

"I was worried a little bit in the first half when he missed that chance and I wondered whether that would play on his mind," Neville told Sky Sports.

"But I was delighted he got the two goals in the second half and I think he's actually pushed himself into a position whereby he's the one I think will start on Sunday, he's the one guaranteed to start in that wide position with Kane in the middle."

Indeed, it would be a massive shock if Rashford doesn't retain his place in Southgate's XI for the last-16 showdown with Senegal.

After all, he's currently sitting alongside Kylian Mbappe, Enner Valencia, Alvaro Morata and Cody Gakpo at the top of the goalscorers' charts, averaging a goal every 36 minutes in Qatar.

Not that we should be surprised, of course. Rashford has always had the talent to thrive at the very highest level.

Declan Rice admitted earlier in the week that Rashford was the one player that really astounded him when he first linked up with the England squad, while Evra remains convinced that he'll become "one of the best in the world".

Louis Saha, meanwhile, has even gone so far as to say that he's on the same level as Mbappe.

That might be pushing it, for now at least. But there's no denying that a revitalised Rashford is a most welcome sight for all football fans.

He's not just a thrilling talent. He's also one of the game's good guys – and it really is just nice to see him smiling again.