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Marcus Rashford’s rich vein of form can usher in Manchester United’s long-awaited dominance

A strike at the Camp Nou takes the Man United forward to 22 goals for the season in all competitions

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 17 February 2023 14:55 GMT
For longs spells in the game Marcus Rashford looked like he could finish off Barcelona on his own
For longs spells in the game Marcus Rashford looked like he could finish off Barcelona on his own (PA)

It was another game that made it feel like Marcus Rashford’s season, even his world, but there is an alternate timeline where he was on the other side.

Way back in the 2018-19 season, Barcelona were making serious overtures for the Manchester United forward. Eric Abidal was intent on Rashford, and the belief was they could get him.

The player himself wasn’t as intent, though, and was ultimately only interested in staying at United. Figures within Barcelona would later talk of Rashford “bottling it", something rather ironic given how that season’s Champions League campaign ended at Anfield.

They are thinking rather differently now, after this Europa League match at Camp Nou. Almost everyone was wowed. Rashford was all they could talk about. It was one of those nights when the Catalan and Spanish media are just taken aback by a “star”, someone they have to have.

There was a long period in the game, especially in the first 20 minutes of the second half, when it looked like Rashford could finish them on his own. Xavi was left praising “a magnificent player”.

The Barcelona manager is just another to add to the list of admirers, as well as Rashford’s list of goals and performances this season. This nevertheless felt like something new, appropriately enough, at Camp Nou. It might not have been the Champions League, and might not have been a peak Barcelona, but this stadium obviously carries a historic prestige for United. Performing here has a special resonance.

Barca are still respectable opponents. And they just couldn’t keep up with Rashford. The first goal was his prize moment, but he had been threatening to do it all game. Rashford was running at Barcelona from every angle. Here, he had a shot from a tight angle, taking the opportunity with a satisfying swish of his boot that just left the previously impregnable Marc-Andre ter Stegen with no chance.

It was actually a goal reminiscent of Leo Messi’s strike against Chelsea here in the 2017-18 Champions League. Except, on that occasion, the great Argentine put it through Thibaut Courtois’s legs rather than just between the goalkeeper and near post as Rashford did here.

He picked his own spot. He also picked his targets. Rashford had been terrorising a few Barca players throughout the night, but Jules Kounde and Raphinha seemed to be having especially difficult times. The United forward’s second prize moment of the match was for the second goal, when he just shredded the Brazilian and Barca’s entire left side. There was such a sense of chaos that Kounde couldn’t help diverting the ball into his own net, as he didn’t seem to know where it was going.

The bigger wonder from a night like this, though, is where it suggests Rashford’s career might next go. This has been a brilliant season, and such a satisfying return to form, but it might also be more.

Rashford celebrates after Kounde scores an own goal and the second for Manchester United (Reuters)

There is now that sense of a player going onto another level of his career, becoming a real destroyer and someone who can devastate opposition sides rather than one who just decorates campaigns. He is, put short, a star United can build around – in the way many anticipated he always could have been. This is the future, but then there is an argument he is currently one of the world’s most in-form players.

That, of course, would usually bring other complications – not least the interest of clubs like Barca. That’s what their media being taken aback usually entails. The club hierarchy, meanwhile, retain their interest as regards a future signing. They would go for him again. But could they actually get him?

As this game emphasised, we are now at a point in football history where Spanish football isn’t the peak. LaLiga’s leaders had such a difficult game against United, and their supposedly rock-solid defence was regularly split like a stone – mostly from Rashford himself. It reflects how they just can’t compete with the resources of the Premier League, which has been shown by the levers pulled in the controversy of the summer. They would be stretching themselves to get Rashford at this point.

He is content where he is, and actually happier than ever. The Premier League has become the place to be. Rashford has always seen United as “home”. Here, however, he made the Camp Nou pitch his own.

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