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Unstoppable Marcus Rashford is propelling Manchester United into title contention

Rashford and Bruno Fernandes struck in a frantic derby   (Getty Images)
Rashford and Bruno Fernandes struck in a frantic derby (Getty Images)

Manchester United’s newest forward was in the stands, balancing a child on each knee. Their most expensive one started the game on the bench. Their season may not be defined by Wout Weghorst or Antony, however, as much as the rejuvenated, increasingly remarkable Marcus Rashford. Manchester City may argue that he altered the direction of a derby without touching the ball: Bruno Fernandes’ equaliser was initially disallowed because Rashford was offside when he chased Casemiro’s through pass, but allowed to stand because the Portuguese instead met it.

Casemiro was probably aiming for Rashford. There was no doubt Alejandro Garnacho was four minutes later when the striker tucked in a low cross. A Manchester derby was decided by a Mancunian. Manchester United, humiliated 6-3 at the Etihad in October, were triumphant at Old Trafford in January. Rashford, whose five previous meetings with City had yielded a lone shot on target, had the shot that mattered most.

For United, it was a ninth straight win, their best run since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. For Rashford, it brought a goal in a ninth consecutive match at Old Trafford. It equalled a club record, set by Dennis Viollet six decades ago and, if such milestones scarcely matter in the emotion of the moment, it is nevertheless a sign of the transformation in his fortunes. Go back to March and Rashford was left on the bench so Fernandes and Paul Pogba could play as twin false nines against City. He was an out-of-form afterthought; the headline news was that Ralf Rangnick had decided to drop Cristiano Ronaldo for the derby. Omitting Rashford had a greater normality.

Now he has become both starter and finisher, going from unselectable to unstoppable. An 82nd-minute goal was actually the earliest of Rashford’s last five goals. ‘Fergie time’ may have to be renamed ‘Rashford time’ because, as the clocks tick down, he gets more potent.

Meanwhile, United grow more dangerous. Since losing to City, they have played 19 games, winning 16, drawing two and losing just one. They had a four-minute turnaround against their neighbours but their season has been a five-month turnaround. Since they got their first point, no one has taken more. It is not a one-man renaissance because the architect of it all stood on the touchline. Erik ten Hag looked emotionless at the final whistle, as though determined to give the impression that this was only to be expected. Yet others’ expressions told a very different tale. There was Casemiro, the serial Champions League winner, hugging David de Gea and Raphael Varane, his long-term Real Madrid teammate, almost embarking on a lap of honour. As Rashford left the pitch, Fernandes shoved a reticent hero towards the Stretford End so they could applaud him.

United, the fallen giants, have shown sides of clambering to their feet. Ten Hag, the manager whose first taste of the derby was an embarrassment, succeeded in his second. He has brought a toughness, a confidence in his own judgment. He is no stranger to contentious calls but, while his selections at the Etihad backfired, he has got the majority very right since then.

A manager had said he was considering some “ridiculous ideas” for the derby. It was Guardiola but, to some, there was something ridiculous about sending Fred out against City; indeed, an air of ridiculousness can surround him. Perhaps the most ridiculous part, though, was the idea that Fred might stop Kevin de Bruyne. Yet while the Belgian set up Jack Grealish’s opener, he often found himself thwarted by a hyperactive menace: part midfielder, part spaniel, Fred was the first half’s most influential figure, flying to block Erling Haaland’s shot. While Casemiro rarely had to sprint – he has such magnetism that the ball found him – Fred was always operating at full pelt.

Ten Hag tinkered with a blueprint, rather than ripping it up. Man-marking in midfield failed at the Etihad, but perhaps the men were too attacking. For the rematch, he introduced Fred, deploying his combativity against De Bruyne, shifting Christian Eriksen forward so he could police Rodri, letting Casemiro serve as the controller, barking orders, sweeping up, watching out for Bernardo Silva whenever he advanced. Instead, the Portuguese dropped ever deeper in the search for space. And while Guardiola orchestrated a breakthrough by bringing on Grealish, City are dropping off the pace.

United, who finished 35 points behind them last season, are now on their coattails. A title challenge is being constructed from the rubble of a car-crash season and then a wretched start to this one. And Rashford, the man who can’t stop scoring, is propelling them into contention. His individual renaissance began with a goal against Liverpool and continued with two against Arsenal. Now, with 10 in nine games, with a derby winner, with a place in the record books, he may be turning United’s great underachievers into achievers; perhaps even overachievers.