When Matthijs De Ligt lines up alongside his Netherlands colleagues on Thursday against England in Guimaraes for the UEFA Nations League semi-final, he will be doing so against the man who he once described as his most difficult opponent.
Marcus Rashford has twice played against the strapping centre-back and has twice come out on top. He was the starting centre-forward for Manchester United in the 2017 Europa League final when a classic Jose Mourinho counter-attack job put paid to Ajax’s hopes in the final. And last year in an international friendly, settled by United team-mate Jesse Lingard, Rashford was again on the winning side.
His performances were of a sufficiently high standard that he left an indelible mark on De Ligt, regarded now as the best centre-back in the world after international colleague Virgil van Dijk.
“That has to be Rashford, from Manchester United,” said De Ligt to Ajax’s in-house TV channel when asked for his toughest opponent. “Great player, quick, technical skills.”
That answer might come as a surprise, especially considering De Ligt has already played against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, Eden Hazard, Antoine Griezmann and Robert Lewandowski in his young career, but it is a testament to the ability possessed by Rashford, and the esteem in which his skills are held by his peers.
“Consistency is the biggest thing,” Rashford told Goal earlier this season. “If you’re getting consistent minutes and you’re consistently improving, that’s what really separates [players] as they get a little bit older.”
And it’s fair to say that Rashford has felt that as hard as any young player this season, especially at club level. Although Rashford missed out on England’s 10-goal haul across two matches in March – against the Czech Republic and Montenegro – his form for the national team in the autumn was strong, scoring in both Nations League games against Spain.
Those international games were a break from the trouble at club level, where he’d been sent off for a headbutt against Burnley and where he had been unable to win over Mourinho with any sort of consistent form.
There was a strong uplift when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over – six goals in eight games at the start of the Norwegian’s reign – but the goals tailed off alarmingly towards the end of the season. Granted, United had less and less to play for but a return of one goal from 11 league games is simply not good enough for a striker of Rashford’s talent.
The 21-year-old has been stung by the personal nature of the barbs directed towards him. Some United fans – online if not all of the match-going ones – have turned against the players, with Rashford, Lingard and Paul Pogba bearing the brunt of the criticism.
Things came to a head during the Treble celebration game at Old Trafford at the end of May. Rashford and Lingard provided analysis for MUTV and were torn apart for everything from their clothing to their perceived unworthiness to represent the same club as David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Co.
Rashford and Lingard responded with an Instagram post which stated simply “0.012%”, apparently in reference to the statistic which states that only 180 of some 1.5 million potential players in England will ever make it to the Premier League.
Rashford had the opportunity to do his talking on the pitch, having won the shirt from Romelu Lukaku, but didn’t do so. In truth it wasn’t easy to stand out in this United setup, blighted as they are by instability, by continuous poor transfer windows, an imbalanced squad, a lack of coherent tactical vision and a catastrophic drop in confidence all round.
But Rashford is back in the oasis that is the England squad. When Rashford was reminded in an interview earlier this season of the euphoria of the World Cup, a smile flashed across his face. It’s clear that representing England, especially under Gareth Southgate and with this group of players, is something enjoyable to him and the rest.
And in a difficult season, it’s helped Rashford find his way. The Nations League is not the World Cup but it is a good tournament with strong teams, and will help England move on from the disappointment of losing to Croatia at the semi-final stage in Moscow last summer.
It is an opportunity for more meaningful match practice, to solidify this squad of players, and to ensure that they prove their readiness to take the pressure of Euro 2020. Rashford has the ability to lead this England attack for a decade or more, and he can start in Guimaraes by reminding De Ligt exactly why he fears him so much.