When Roy Hodgson announced his preliminary 26-man squad for the summer’s European Championship, the headline inclusion was of a certain Marcus Rashford. Thrown in after just three months of first-team football for Manchester United, it has since been widely accepted that the teenager will be one of the unlucky three who will miss out on a place in the final 23.
But after yet another eye-catching display in United’s win over Bournemouth, the case for Rashford to be taken to France continues to have weight added to it. The 18-year-old may be behind Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge in the pecking order, but there is certainly a role he can play for the Three Lions.
His willingness to be direct and open his legs at Old Trafford on Tuesday was in stark contrast to the performances of his team-mates during a turgid first half against the Cherries, and while the hosts went up a gear after the break, Rashford did not allow his own performance level to come into line with those around him.
Capping off his display with a lashed finish to secure all three points was a further sign of his eye for goal, and while the three players in the queue ahead of him cannot be accused of struggling for form when it comes to finding the net, Rashford has the ability to provide Hodgson with a genuine option from the substitutes’ bench this summer.
On a number of occasions against Eddie Howe’s side he showed fleet of foot to get away from opposition defenders and find space to both shoot and create opportunities for others. He has a knack for making his way goalwards as soon as the ball comes into his feet rather than being more conservative and looking backwards to keep possession.
And while his second-half strike demonstrated that he is not about to lose his finishing touch, the delightful dummy that laid on Wayne Rooney’s opener was perhaps the clearest indication that he is ready to step up into the surroundings of a major tournament. An appreciation of where team-mates are inside the penalty area is a key trait for any striker, and at 18, Rashford is already showing himself to be a player of immense intelligence that belies his inexperience.
Though it was Rooney who benefited from the youngster’s play, his goal was the icing on the cake of another impressive central midfield performance. The former Everton striker played a part in all three United goals, with his diagonal passes into wide areas a feature of the whole 90 minutes. He never shirked his defensive responsibilities and is maturing into a player who can play at the highest level behind the strikers for a few years more to come.
And it is Rooney’s transformation that perhaps provides Rashford with his best chance of earning a place in Hodgson’s final squad. Though Rooney is listed as a striker on the official squad list, he is highly likely to start as, at the very least, a No.10 behind the forwards rather than an out-and-out frontman. While his inclusion in such a role could lead to a more established central midfielder such as Jordan Henderson or Jack Wilshere missing out, there can now be no doubt that it is his best position.
And while many argue the upcoming Euros would be too early for Rashford, it could also prove the catalyst to a long and distinguished international career. When Theo Walcott was selected for the 2006 World Cup as a 17-year-old he remained glued to the bench as Sven-Goran Eriksson guided the Three Lions to the quarter-finals. Hodgson cannot afford to do the same to Rashford if he does opt to take the gamble and keep him in the squad given everything he has shown in the Premier League thus far.
Hodgson would certainly be taking a risk were he to plump for Rashford, but throwing him into the provisional squad already suggests there is a feeling he has what it takes to go onto big things. There is no reason those big things cannot begin with a moment of brilliance in France in just a few weeks' time.