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Manchester United 2-0 Chelsea: Marcus Rashford rewards Jose Mourinho gamble
Last Updated: 16/04/17 10:39pm
Marcus Rashford rewarded Jose Mourinho's decision to start him ahead of Zlatan Ibrahimovic against Chelsea, writes Nick Wright.
It is not unusual for Jose Mourinho to spring a surprise in big games, but there was little reason to suspect Zlatan Ibrahimovic would drop to the bench against Chelsea. The Swede had played more Premier League minutes than any of his outfield team-mates this season. He had scored 10 goals in his previous 12 appearances in all competitions.
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Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera were on target in Man Utd's 2-0 win.
Leaving him out of the starting line-up seemed to confirm suspicions that Mourinho was prioritising Thursday's Europa League tie with Anderlecht, but out on the pitch it soon became clear he had other motives. Marcus Rashford may not be the main man at Old Trafford, but he was certainly man with the tools to trouble Chelsea.
Mourinho had spotted that in the recent FA Cup meeting between the two sides at Stamford Bridge. Rashford's efforts were in vain that day as United were made to pay for Ander Herrera's first half sending off, but they were not forgotten by Mourinho. "We knew that playing this way would be very difficult for them," he said after the game.
In an unfamiliar front two with fellow academy graduate Jesse Lingard, Rashford was instructed to run in behind Chelsea's defence at every opportunity. The visitors were unusually vulnerable after the withdrawals of Thibaut Courtois and Marcos Alonso. Rashford's electric pace and tireless energy made him the perfect candidate to capitalise.
He snatched at his first effort on goal in the sixth minute, but the opener arrived just 60 seconds later. Herrera was fortunate not to be penalised when the ball struck his hand in the build-up, but Rashford had already started his diagonal run behind David Luiz. He latched onto Herrera's perfect pass, composed himself, and fired a low finish beyond the advancing Asmir Begovic.
It was United's earliest goal of the season and it set the tone for the afternoon.
Rashford caused all kinds of problems in the right-hand channel between Luiz and Gary Cahill. In the 16th minute he combined with Lingard to release Ashley Young, who flashed a dangerous low shot across the six-yard box, and on the half-hour mark he fashioned another opening for the 31-year-old. This time his wild shot flew over the bar.
Rashford continued in the same vein after the break, but it wasn't just his pace that caused Chelsea difficulties. The 19-year-old has filled out since bursting onto the scene last season. Shortly after hitting a powerful effort into the side netting midway through the half, he showed formidable strength to hold off Luiz and N'Golo Kante before drawing a diving save from Begovic.
"He has truly taken his chance," said Gary Neville in the Sky Sports commentary box. "He has been outstanding. The Chelsea back three, who have been fantastic all season, have been torn apart all day."
By the time he was withdrawn to a standing ovation in the 83rd minute, Rashford had taken more shots and completed more dribbles than any other player on the pitch. His goal threat was reflected by the fact he touched the ball in the opposition box more than twice as many times as his Chelsea counterpart Diego Costa.
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A warm embrace from Mourinho told its own story, and the United manager reiterated his delight after the game. "He played fantastically well," he told Sky Sports. "He is faster than their defenders and he can get behind them. He scored at the beginning of the match, which gave the team more confidence and stability, so it was very important. The kid played fantastically well."
Having failed to find the net in 20 Premier league appearances between September and March, Rashford has now scored two in two. His return to form is well timed as United chase a top-four finish and Europa League glory, and his combination play with Lingard suggests they have an energetic alternative to the more static approach required with Ibrahimovic.
"As United fan, it wasn't half good to see two players move up front, be mobile and look like they want to play with each other," said Neville afterwards. "In the last three or four years, that was probably the best I've seen a front pair play for United."
Ibrahimovic will expect to return to United's starting line-up when they resume their Premier League campaign away to Burnley next weekend, but Mourinho's gamble paid off handsomely against Chelsea. Rashford has spent much of the season waiting in the wings. On Sunday he showed he can still be a central figure.