Rashford and Mbappé set for battle of the kids at Old Trafford
Pair are arguably the world’s most exciting young strikers
Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford. It is one of the biggest indictments of Mourinho and his tenure that supporters and pundits were starting to question whether Rashford was really that good. Photograph: Getty Images
It has been a whirlwind two months for Manchester United. The winter of discontent which seemed inevitable at Old Trafford never materialised and now the club head into the spring reborn.
Since José Mourinho’s sacking on December 18th, United are unbeaten under interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, winning 10 of 11 fixtures and gliding seamlessly into fourth place.
The picture was symbolic of the collective ethos reintroduced to the club by Solskjaer since his appointment. He is happy to delegate, to trust in others. “We are different ages. We are different in what we’re good at, we complement each other really well,” he said of his staff on Friday.
There was another photo opportunity for Solskjaer last week and he stood proudly alongside his centre-forward Marcus Rashford, who had been named January’s player of the month.
One of Solskjaer’s first moves as United boss was to play Rashford through the middle, bringing him in from the left, and the return has been impressive. The 21-year-old has scored six goals in 10 appearances under the new regime, but numbers alone don’t do his revival justice.
It is one of the biggest indictments of Mourinho and his tenure that supporters and pundits were starting to question whether Rashford was really that good.
After all he was hardly starved of playing time under Mourinho. Rashford made 125 appearances in total under the Portuguese, the vast majority coming before his 21st birthday last October.
Despite playing regularly, Rashford – who burst unexpectedly onto the scene under Louis van Gaal in 2016 – seemed to be stalling. But now, like many of his Old Trafford teammates, he is freewheeling under Solskjaer.
His goal in the 1-0 win over Tottenham in January provided a blueprint for the future. With United on the break Paul Pogba’s vision and perfect execution released Rashford, who was lurking menacingly on the shoulder. A fizzing blur of red, white and black, he takes one perfect touch, steadies himself and then hits the ball beyond Hugo Lloris and into the far corner, showing all the dead-eyed precision of his new gaffer.
Rashford’s relationship with Pogba is perhaps United’s most potent weapon, with Rashford’s pace and willingness to run in behind a perfect foil for the French midfielder’s carrying and passing ability.
It was a similar tactic which helped France win the World Cup in Russia last year - but instead of Rashford, Pogba was feeding the electric Kylian Mbappé.
Rashford is a year older than Mbappé, but in footballing terms they are direct peers, and arguably world football’s two most exciting young strikers. But despite being younger, Mbappé’s development has been more accelerated.
First catching the eye during Monaco’s run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2017, Mbappé was soon snatched up by Paris Saint-Germain on loan, ahead of a staggering €180 million permanent transfer.He was then the standout player of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, scoring four goals as France became world champions. He memorably outshone Argentina’s Lionel Messi in the last-16, delivering a stunning performance in a 4-3 victory.
In terms of silverware and global recognition, Rashford now has a bit of catching up to do with Mbappé, who has a World Cup medal hanging proudly round his neck at 20 years old.
On Tuesday night though, as Paris Saint-Germain arrive at Old Trafford in the last 16 of the Champions League, both players are once again direct peers – both with the fate of the tie partly resting on their shoulders.
And while Mbappé burst on to the scene playing in the Champions League, Rashford is yet to play his part in one of the truly big nights.
During his breakthrough season, and the season after, United were in the Europa League. Last year they limped out in the second round against Seville after delivering one of the most spineless performances of the Mourinho-era – of which there were plenty.
Rashford won’t be the only player in red charting new ground on Tuesday night. Since they reached the final in 2011, United have made it beyond the last 16 of the Champions League once, when they reached the quarter-finals under David Moyes in 2014.
For a club so indelibly linked with the competition, this is a serious drought – Old Trafford is yearning for a meaningful European Cup night.
And while a clash with the nouveau riche, Qatar-funded PSG perhaps doesn’t stir the soul in the same way as a visit from Barcelona or Bayern, it is still a daunting prospect for United.
Yet United’s transformation under Solskjaer means it is now daunting for PSG as well. The visitors, without the injured Neymar, will look to their World Cup winning number seven for inspiration. The hosts will look to play on the counter, and their number 10 will be at the heart of this.
“I’m sure PSG will be as wary of Marcus Rashford as we are of Kylian Mbappé,” said Solskjaer at the weekend.
On Tuesday, Wythenshawe’s finest can finally shine under the European lights.
Club: Manchester United
Date of birth: October 31st, 1997 (21 years old)
Senior appearances: 153
Senior goals: 42
International caps: 31
International goals: 6
Major honours: 1x FA Cup, 1x League Cup, 1x Europa League
First team debut: vs FC Midtjylland (Europa League), February 25th, 2016
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
Date of birth: December 20th, 1998 (20 years old)
Senior appearances: 131
Senior goals: 70
International caps: 28
International goals: 10
Major honours: 1x World Cup, 2x Ligue 1, 1x Coupe de France, 1x French League Cup
First team debut: (AS Monaco) vs SM Caen (Ligie 1), December 2nd, 2015