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Apprentice to Master: Marcus Rashford is ready to fill Zlatan Ibrahimovic void

Apprentice to Master: Rashford is ready to fill Zlatan void

20/04/2017 at 23:14

Richard Jolly was at Old Trafford to see Marcus Rashford carry Manchester United into the Europa League semi-finals. And if Zlatan Ibrahimovic has vacated the stage, at least his understudy seems to know his lines as he prepares for the final act…

The pain came first for Manchester United. The glory may follow. A night of physical discomfort and mental anguish was eventually alleviated by Marcus Rashford. By finally disposing of Anderlecht, United find themselves 270 minutes away from a second trophy of the season and a return to the Champions League.

Yet few things come easily to Jose Mourinho. Taken to extra time by Belgian underdogs, stripped of key players at either end of the pitch, his fight on two fronts continues with fewer troops and minus his first lieutenant. First Marcos Rojo and then Zlatan Ibrahimovic departed, warriors whose bodies gave way in the most draining knockout competition of all. The Europa League semi-finals may have a different cast list.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)Getty Images

Ibrahimovic hobbled off after hurting his knee in the last minute of normal time. The image of the talismanic Swede departing down the tunnel may yet be the Stretford End’s final view of him. His contract is up in the summer and there is no guarantee he will renew it.

If so, it was an inappropriate end. Ibrahimovic had a night when most things he tried backfired. A pass was over-hit by about 30 yards, a shot skewed so wide it nearly hit the corner flag. Rashford seemed to offer far more incision and, after Sunday’s display against Chelsea, he looked the future.

Yet none of that should detract from Ibrahimovic’s colossal contribution. He has delivered 28 goals in 46 games, scored a match-winning brace in a cup final and secured a place on the PFA Player of the Year shortlist: not bad for a man deep into his 36th year. Even with his tendency to have off-days, he still represented United’s best chance of a top-four finish.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic v Anderlecht

Zlatan Ibrahimovic v AnderlechtGetty Images

Now that mantle passes to his deputy. It is as well that Rashford seems to relish responsibility and that he has a flair for the dramatic. It is timely that he has returned to form. His 107th-minute goal was a third in a four-game spell when he has been terrific.

But victories rarely come at such a cost. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were already sidelined for much of the remainder of the season. Rojo was then stretchered off, suggesting his campaign was cruelly curtailed when he had been in the best form of his United career.

Rojo and Eric Bailly were the men exempt from squad rotation, deemed the only two fit central defenders at Old Trafford by Mourinho. The Argentinian’s departure was a moment to make them wish they had pursued their interest in Victor Lindelof in January. Instead Daley Blind, a fringe figure for so long, assumes a centrality for the next month. The Dutchman was actually United’s best centre-back last season but few Mourinho defences have been anchored by slow, comparatively short allies of Louis van Gaal.

Marcos Rojo

Marcos RojoGetty Images

If he is scarcely a typical Mourinho player, this is not a quintessential Mourinho team. If Sunday’s dissection of Chelsea was reminiscent of Mourinho’s past, this was all too typical of his present. The classic Mourinho sides exhibited control but this was a frantic affair. It highlighted the stop-start nature of their progress after the Portuguese. After the tactical masterclass against Chelsea came something altogether more ragged. The Premier League leaders were not permitted a shot on target; the Belgian league leaders had too many, plus a sprinkling of near-misses.

Mourinho left Brussels lamenting United’s lack of killer instinct. Seven days later, and despite a clinical early finish from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Rashford’s extra-time intervention, it remained conspicuous by its absence.

It was one of those games when the Portuguese cuts a frustrated figure, a prisoner in his technical area, lashing out at thin air, and with greater accuracy than some of his charges showed in front of goal. Meanwhile, United looked liable to be counter-attacked by a side who were quick on the break. The gulf in resources was not reflected on the pitch; it is a damningly familiar sentiment.

But United prevailed and they progressed. They have only lost twice in 37 games. It is a remarkable record and if they did not always convince, they advanced. It is a theme of a season which has been dominated by Ibrahimovic. If the leading man has vacated the stage, at least the understudy seems to know his lines as he prepares for the final act.

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