Marcus Rashford was back where it all started.
He’d hoped for a cameo role, at best. But after Anthony Martial was injured during the warm-up, an 18-year-old with zero first-team experience found himself plunged in at the deep end.
Tied at 1-1 on the night and trailing 3-2 on aggregate, Juan Mata’s missed penalty had Manchester United heading for a humiliating exit.
And then it happened. Twice. Rashford labelled his two-goal heroics that saved his side’s skin that night as a “dream debut.”
Then coach Louis Van Gaal’s description was more fitting: “It was unbelievable!”
This week, Rashford returned to the scene. Back at Old Trafford, locked 1-1 on the night against an Anderlecht team they were expected to cruise past, United turned to English football’s boy wonder once more.
He’d already created their first, an intelligent run seeing him latch onto a Paul Pogba pass before rolling in Henrikh Mkhitaryan for an early opener.
The hosts looked set for a comfortable evening, but a Sofiane Hanni equaliser stopped Jose Mourinho’s side in their tracks.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a man at the opposite end of his career to Rashford, was supposed to come to the rescue.
Zlatan had been rested at the weekend for a huge Premier League clash with Chelsea, asked to focus solely on securing his club a Europa League semi-final berth.
Time and again the Swede has been the difference, the 35-year-old having already hit 28 goals in his debut campaign in England.
But on Thursday he was misfiring. Three times he failed to take the sort of chances he’s been burying all season.
And, in the final action of the 90 minutes, his night came to a premature end after he fell awkwardly on his knee.
Rashford had been the star of the show against Chelsea in Zlatan’s absence, hitting the opener in what was perhaps the finest performance of his short but remarkable career to date, and he was asked to step up once again.
He did so in impressive fashion, demanding the ball time and again, displaying the courage to lead one of the world’s biggest clubs through adversity.
And he did it from the left, not his preferred position, but just another of the countless sacrifices, both big and small, the teenager is making for his team.
"Playing out wide is going to help me to develop to play in the middle in the long run," he said. “Looking at the game from a different perspective, it's helping my game a lot.”
Rashford was helping United’s, too. The hosts had dominated all evening, with Rashford leading the charge. His pace, guile, and direct running overwhelmed Anderlecht, but the Belgians held firm.
“All you can do is keep trying,” said Rashford. "In games like this you have to hope to get another chance.”
After 107 minutes, Rashford made one for himself: Skipping away from two defenders inside the box with an ingenious Cruyff turn, he shuffled into space before driving home a spectacular winner.
"Some players don't know what makes me trust a player, but Marcus I trust,” said Mourinho of his saviour, of the teenager who kept a Europa League dream alive – 14 months after his own began.
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