It was an encounter shaping up like so many other Manchester United matches this season; the home side dominated possession, missed chances and lost a sloppy goal. Until Marcus Rashford stepped forward that is. On Thursday the Reds once again managed to turn a fixture that should have been routine into an evening when fans held their collective breath. In the end, José Mourinho’s side secured passage into the Europa League semi-final at the expense of RSC Anderlecht, thanks largely to the heroics of a 19-year-old with the world at his feet. But as has been the case for United this season, there is little time to stop and reflect as the side returns to league action at Burnley.
When a United team sans Zlatan Ibrahimovic was announced an hour prior to kick-off against Chelsea last week, there was near universal assumption that Mourinho had jettisoned his team’s top-four hopes to preserve enough fuel for the Europa League. The added incentive of Champions League qualification for the tournament’s winners does now seem a more viable route into the competition than clawing back six points on Liverpool. Of course, this United side has, for better or worse, rarely done what is expected of it this season – as illustrated by a fine 2-0 victory over the league leaders.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]On Thursday the Reds once again managed to turn a fixture that should have been routine into an evening when fans had to hold their collective breath[/blockquote]
The decision to rest both Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan against Chelsea paid an immediate dividend as the Armenian fired home an early strike against Anderlecht – a rarity at Old Trafford this campaign. The team’s frustrating tendency to concede goals through defensive lapses amidst a plethora of spurned opportunities reared its head soon after. It wasn’t until the brilliant Rashford stepped forward in extra-time that United fans could climb out from behind the sofa. For those at Old Trafford there was no such escape from the tension, but some day they may have the pleasure of recounting the night when Rashford truly arrived as a United player.
The teenager burst onto the scene last season as a rare standout in a stuttering side. This term has been more of a struggle, with the player often played out on the wing, or left on the bench in favour of Ibrahimovic. The youngster was also criticised publicly by his manager. It was a test for Rashford – not playing and coming under fire from the manager – but he has responded wonderfully and shown that he has the character to succeed at the club.
There had been little doubt over Rashford’s ability, but in demonstrating the toughness to deal with adversity he has further enhanced an already burgeoning reputation. Ibrahimovic’s injury means that Rashford will now lead the line for Mourinho through the remainder of the season, which a big ask for such a young player when there are trophies on the line. However, there are few United fans who would not back the player to step up.
The striker’s first assignment is to find a way past Burnley at Turf Moor. More teams than comfortable have shut United out this term, but few will have had the manager tearing his hair out more than the Clarets. United’s 72 per cent possession and 38 shots on goal were not enough to secure three points at Old Trafford in October – a fixture that epitomises United’s season.
The Reds are unlikely to exert the same level of dominance away from home against a Burnley side yet to be assured of survival. The hosts do, however, have the sixth-best home record in the division, albeit one that contains only one victory over a top six side – a 2-0 win over Liverpool in August. United cannot afford to join that list.
Sean Dyche’s side’s has won only one of the team’s last 10 league games, an alarming run that leaves the Clarets only five points above the drop-zone. With four games remaining, Dyche’s team is just a handful of decent results away from safety, but with both Hull City and Swansea City resurgent, the pressure is on the Lancashire outfit to scrape points together.
Dyche has received praise for bringing a side with comparatively limited resources back to the Premier League after a disappointing relegation in 2015, and he has helped nurture youngsters such as Andre Gray and Michael Keane. The latter has impressed for Burnley this season, earning a call into the England squad and is now the subject of tentative rumours linking the defender with a return to Old Trafford.
Keane was sold to the Clarets half-way through Louis Van Gaal’s first season at United, and despite the Dutchman taking pride in his eye for young talent, it looks as though Keane is one he let slip through his net. The 24-year-old was, however, part of the side who suffered that ignominious 4-0 defeat to MK Dons in the FA Cup, and certainly wasn’t the only player whose fate at the club was sealed that evening.
The young centre-back will likely line up against Rashford in what should be an intriguing battle. The two United academy products could become teammates next season if, as the rumours suggest, Mourinho is interested in re-signing Keane.
The obvious blow for United is the sad news that both Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo suffered knee ligament damage in Thursday’s Europa League tie. For Zlatan, in particular, the injury has cast doubt over his Old Trafford future, and at 35, his career in general. The long lay-off that the Swede now faces could have terminal consequences for a career already in its latter stages and there has already been speculation that the player may be forced to retire.
What goes in the striker’s favour is that despite his birth certificate, there is little else to suggest that Ibrahimovic is a man approaching the end of his playing days. He has displayed the fitness and athleticism of a much younger man and only time will tell whether his impeccable conditioning will allow a return if the injury is as serious as suggested.
Whatever the long-term outcome, Ibrahimovic’s season is over – but what a season it has been. There were many who doubted the enigmatic frontman’s ability to adapt to the much hype “best league in the world”, but 28 goals later and Zlatan has certainly put those reservations out to pasture. If he never pulls on the red shirt again, as looks likely, fans have taken great pleasure in witnessing such a character grace the Old Trafford pitch.
United subs from: Romero, Fosu-Mensah, Shaw, Darmian, Bailly, Fellaini, Rooney
Burnley subs from: Pope, Robinson, Flanagan, Defour, Westwood, Gudmundsson, Arfield, Tarkowski, Darikwa, Agyei
The clash of knees Rojo suffered on Thursday initially looked less serious than the hyper-extension that forced Zlatan out of the game. There was hope that the Argentinian had merely suffered an impact injury and that he would recover quickly, but the club’s statement on Friday suggests that he too is in for a extensive period on the sidelines. Rojo has progressed from liability under Van Gaal to an integral component of Mourinho’s United. He has become an ever-present at the heart of a defence that has otherwise constantly changed.
As with some others, Rojo was one of this season’s true success stories. His absence creates real issues for Mourinho at the back, with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones offering no guarantee of fitness. The manager had no choice but to admit that the team is “in trouble” with mounting injuries.
The growing queue for the treatment table could create opportunities for Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe though. Mourinho’s record suggests that he is unlikely to throw in two relative novices together at such a crucial stage of the campaign, but there is the chance to involve the young players more regularly. Fosu-Mensah, in particular, requires game time and not merely travelling with the senior team.
Dyche described United as the “best team we have played against this season”, and while that is a gracious endorsement of the work Mourinho has done in his first campaign it will ring hollow if, for the second time this season, United fail to pick up maximum points against the Clarets.
Anthony Taylor (Referee)
J Collin, P Kirkup (Assistants)
L Mason (Fourth official)
Burnley 0-1 United