By Saj Chowdhury
A teenage sensation in the making, an under-pressure manager with something to smile about, title hopes dented and quite astonishing touchline behaviour — Manchester United's 3-2 win over Arsenal was delivered in unexpected ways.
These two heavyweights, who have seen better days, delivered a Sunday classic, not in the true sense of the word — it wasn’t pretty at times and there were mistakes aplenty — but one where those in attendance and watching at home will say, “oh yes, the one when Marcus Rashford scored twice and manager Louis van Gaal caused a meme frenzy...”.
This time last week 18-year-old Rashford did not have a Wikipedia page.
The United academy player’s burgeoning goalscoring talents were only known to the trainspotter fan and the youth coaches before circumstance on Thursday changed his career trajectory.
How long his moment in the sun lasts is dependent on many variables, but let’s look at the 'now' — he has embraced this opportunity and the United fans have embraced the local boy come good, which bodes well.
The injury to $80m summer signing Anthony Martial prior to Thursday’s must-win Europa League match against FC Midtjylland, coupled with the unavailable Wayne Rooney, meant that Rashford was named as a late replacement.
With United’s season, and possibly Van Gaal’s future, hinged on turning around a 2-1 deficit, the youngster assumed the role of braveheart, scoring twice at the Stretford End as United ended up strolling to qualification for the last 16.
This teenager, with tremendous pace, provided the impetus for that fightback. Could he repeat the trick against tougher opposition? It was a huge yes.
As with any good striker he timed his run perfectly to lash in a loose ball in the area for his first, and then anticipated Jesse Lingard’s cross to head in his second.
Unlike Martial and Rooney he is a forward in the old fashioned sense. A direct player who can run behind the last defender, and a player who it seems instinctively knows where to position himself in the box.
Let’s not get carried away just yet, although Rashford is another United ‘Babe’ who seems like the real deal.
Alex Ferguson nurtured the careers of the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and the Neville brothers during the 1990s — are we seeing Van Gaal setting the wheels in motion for the next crop?
Lingard and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson have come through the youth system and are regulars under Van Gaal, while Will Keane, Joe Riley, Tyler Blackett, Paddy McNair and now Rashford have all been given their chances to impress.
Some will point to the fact the current Dutch manager has been forced into playing the kids because of the seemingly never-ending injuries. But it is worth remembering the 64-year-old helped with the development of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta at Barcelona and Thomas Muller and David Alaba at Bayern Munich. Quite a resume.
Whether he sees some of these kids blossom into men next season is still not a certainty, with those in charge of the club yet to deny reports he will be replaced by Jose Mourinho.
But these two big wins in the last week will have helped his cause as has introducing the world to Marcus Rashford.
As for the ammunition for social media...
Yes, Van Gaal is box office.
Like Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp and former Chelsea manager Mourinho, he opens his mouth and we the media and you the observer expect to be entertained.
His soundbites have been priceless, but he cranked it up another level at Old Trafford.
Twitter and Facebook went into overdrive when Van Gaal remonstrated with the fourth official about perceived diving by Arsenal players by actually diving to the grond himself.
He would get top marks for that ‘dive’ at the Olympics, both for execution and for holding on to his clipboard.
Memes were created by ranging from a fallen Van Gaal facing the angry bear from The Revenant to him superimposed on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
His counterpart was in less entertaining mood.
Wenger caught short again?
Arsenal fans — do not sink your heads just yet.
Leicester have a five-point lead over your team after Saturday’s late, late win against Norwich while Tottenham fought back to defeat Swansea to keep chase.
The gap to the Foxes is not insurmountable, but manager Arsene Wenger will want his side to eliminate basic mistakes unbefitting of would be champions.
On Sunday, a poor clearance by centre-back Gabriel was punished by Rashford, before the defence left the teenager alone in the box to head in three minutes later.
They did give themselves hope by reducing the deficit twice, but at 3-2 there appeared to be little desire to try to get something from the game.
Arsenal’s assist-king Mesut Ozil scored, but the United midfield, in particular Morgan Schneiderlin, denied him space. And forward Theo Walcott’s display was the antithesis of Rashford’s - poor movement and poor positioning.
Were Arsenal fatigued from the midweek defeat by Barcelona? Perhaps, but surely they should have taken heart from keeping the trident of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez quiet for so long.
So, was it a lack of belief?
Wenger said after the defeat: “What is for sure, our spirit and commitment was 100 per cent there.”
They have 11 games remaining, but this coming week might revive or kill their league hopes with Swansea on Wednesday followed by the most important north London derby in many years, when they travel to second place Tottenham on Saturday.
“We are in a fight where we can show that we have great character and a mental response on Wednesday,” added the Frenchman.
It was difficult to fathom from that display at Old Trafford which player or players will carry that fight.
But in a season of twists and turns, do not be surprised if the Gunners reload for the final denouement.
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Updated Date: Feb 29, 2016 14:45:47 IST