Unstoppable Marcus Rashford powers Manchester United into title race
Cristiano Ronaldo finished last season with 24 goals. Then, as Marcus Rashford mustered a mere five, it seemed fanciful to suggest he could be as prolific. Now, with three months of the current campaign remaining and Manchester United still in four competitions, Rashford is on 24 already. A brace took him to the best tally of his career. Carry on at the current rate and he will get closer to Ronaldo’s United best of 42 than anyone has in the subsequent 15 years.
Ronaldo’s 24 goals earned him a nomination for the PFA Player of the Year award. Whether or not Rashford’s tally secures him individual silverware, he is powering United into the title race. Five points behind Arsenal, with eight wins in 11 league games, they have form on their side. Even as Leicester City threatened to conquer fortress Old Trafford in a fine first quarter, they were instead defeated and dispatched. Erik ten Hag’s side now have 14 victories in their last 15 attempts on home turf. A 15th in 16 will eliminate Barcelona from Europe and, with Rashford in this form, it feels eminently feasible.
If Ten Hag’s side, featuring five changes after the hectic epic in the Nou Camp, began sluggishly, to their manager’s evident frustration, they ended emphatic winners. Bruno Fernandes marked his 150th United start with a pair of assists. Jadon Sancho’s renaissance continued with a fine finish, as United have the most goals from substitutes of any side, it offered further evidence of Ten Hag’s ability to affect games. A clean sheet owed much to two superlative saves from David de Gea before Rashford broke the deadlock but whereas Tottenham conceded four times to Leicester last week, United were inches from scoring four against them.
They are a team on the charge, powered by a forward in the form of his life. No one in Europe’s top five leagues has more goals since the World Cup than Rashford and he took his tally to 16 in 17 outings; it might have been 17 in 17 had Ten Hag not substituted him to save him for Thursday. Rashford was the scourge of Barcelona in the Nou Camp. It may be of some consolation to Leicester to know they are in good company.
They had dominated the opening exchanges, registering nine attempts at goal in the first 21 minutes. Then they trailed to a clinical strike. Fernandes bent a pass behind the Leicester defence with the outside of his right foot and Rashford drilled a shot beyond Danny Ward with unerring accuracy. Wayne Rooney was the only previous player to score in seven straight Premier League games at Old Trafford. Now Rashford is proving potent whenever and wherever he plays, and in whatever competition.
He started as the striker and moved to the left wing in the second half. He got a goal in each role. He raced on to Fred’s through pass and slotted a shot past Ward. Initially given offside, replays showed he had timed his run perfectly.
United soon had a third as Fernandes turned creator again. Sancho stabbed in a shot to complete a deft one-two and rewarded Ten Hag for bringing him on at half-time. The stand-in captain – the former Leicester defender Harry Maguire was injured and out of the squad – could have had a hat-trick of assists. Diogo Dalot missed a sitter, poking wide from Fernandes’ low cross. As the chances either side of half-time fell to defenders, the unmarked Lisandro Martinez headed Luke Shaw’s free-kick against the bar.
They were kept busier in their own half at the start. As Casemiro served the last game of his three-match ban, there was no barrier in front of the back four and United looked susceptible to the counter-attack.
Leicester, buoyed by their demolition of Tottenham, showed an enterprising, ambitious streak. They illustrated why they have talent to trouble top teams but De Gea displayed his defiance. The eviscerating pace of Harvey Barnes almost brought a breakthrough. The winger surged forward, swapped passes with Kelechi Iheanacho and shot. The Spaniard excelled to tip it past the post. When Timothy Castagne chipped a cross to the far post and Dalot misread it, De Gea did brilliantly to claw away Iheanacho’s header.
Rashford underlined the significance of the goalkeeper’s heroics with his double and Ten Hag could turn his thoughts to Barcelona. A fit-again Scott McTominay made his comeback. The teenager Kobbie Mainoo was granted a Premier League debut. Ten Hag did not need to turn to the unused substitute Raphael Varane.
United can take a weekend off Premier League action to contest the Carabao Cup final safe in the knowledge they have a cushion in the top four and the opportunity to end up as the top one. Leicester’s supporters chanted “champions of England more recent than you”. It is true for now. By the end of May, it might not be.