Marcus Rashford at his brilliant lethal best was Jose Mourinho’s ace up his sleeve that saw Manchester United beat rivals Liverpool in an Old Trafford thriller.
The Mancunian scored twice in the first half as United made an electrifying start but the hosts then had to endure an attempted comeback by the Merseysiders, boosted by an Eric Bailly own goal in the 66th minute.
A stubborn response to Liverpool’s recovery and a rediscovered taste for the big-rival scalps – Chelsea were beaten in the last home game, of course – meant that United survived a nail-biting finale and extended the gap between second and third place to five points ahead of the weekend’s other Premier League fixtures.
There was a debate in the build-up to this much-awaited match as to how Mourinho would play this one tactically. Many considered opinions were that it might be a safety-first approach but the inclusion of Rashford in the starting XI was the first hint that the guessers were going to be wide of the mark.
It didn’t take long for the returnee to the opening line up to prove it was going to be an all-guns-blazing United who were set on shaking Liverpool to their foundations.
Rashford hadn’t begun a Premier League match in 2018 with his last start coming on Boxing Day against Burnley. It was a masterstroke by Mourinho to thrust him back in against Jurgen Klopp’s men. The 20-year-old came out of the traps breathing fire and destroyed his opposition marker Trent Alexander-Arnold with a blistering opening 24 minutes that had Old Trafford bouncing.
Romelu Lukaku proved his threat as a powerful front man when he headed David De Gea’s goal-kick into Rashford’s path in the 14th minute. Quick as a flash, the Mancunian had turned right back Alexander-Arnold and rifled a right-footed low drive past goalkeeper Loris Karius.
It was breathtaking stuff and that didn’t relent.
Liverpool’s famed strike trio of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino were being kept quiet but defender Virgil van Dijk did stop a few hearts in the Stretford End when he almost equalised after 23 minutes. Had the £75million defender connected with his head instead of his shoulder it may well have been a different story.
But as Liverpool bemoaned the miss, United immediately added to their misery. Again Lukaku’s powerful doggedness was key as he fought to keep a chance alive, the ball was whipped off Juan Mata’s toes but became a gift for Rashford. His execution for the second goal was identical to his first as he fired in low with his right foot.
It almost got gloriously even better just before half-time when Mata was left in space in Liverpool’s half to latch onto Alexis’s cross. The Spaniard almost matched his Anfield overhead kick from almost three years ago but saw his effort drift agonisingly wide.
Liverpool must have needed smelling salts at half-time and they did recover after the interval and began taking the game to United. However, their high-octane, high-line game was being met with brilliant resistance by Mourinho’s men.
However, after 66 minutes United’s defence was breached. Bailly had his back to goal and attempted to clear Mane’s cross but the Ivorian couldn’t get his balance or feet right and turned the ball into his own net.
It prompted more pressure from Klopp’s side but United’s defending was stoic and first class, enabling David De Gea not to have to pull off one of his customary huge stops.
United: De Gea, Valencia (c), Bailly, Smalling, Young, Matic, McTominay, Mata (Lingard 88), Rashford (Fellaini 69), Alexis (Darmian 96), Lukaku. Subs not used: Romero, Lindelof, Carrick, Shaw.
Booked: Rashford, Valencia.
Liverpool: Karius, Alexander-Arnold (Wijnaldum 80), Lovren, Van Dijk, Robertson (Solanke 84), Can, Milner (c), Oxlaide-Chamberlain (Lallana 62) Mane, Salah, Firmino. Subs not used: Mignolet, Gomez, Henderson, Matip. Booked: Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Rashford is off to Russia
Jose Mourinho declared recently that Marcus’s absence from United’s starting XI wouldn’t harm the striker’s hopes of playing for England in the World Cup as long as the manager trusts him. England boss Gareth Southgate knows enough about the Mancunian to trust him but as a gentle reminder this wasn’t bad. With Southgate in the VIP seats at Old Trafford, Rashford was back in devastating and devilish form.
The Beast is back It had its downside but generally Eric Bailly’s return was a success. The central defender hadn’t begun a match since the defeat at Chelsea in the first week of November but you would never have guessed. Following knee surgery, he has been nursed back since regaining fitness and had been named on the bench in United’s four previous fixtures and appearing as a sub in two of them. The Ivorian was thrown back in against one of this season’s most revered attacking units but he overpowered all-comers until his unfortunate own goal.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR UNITED?
United face Sevilla at Old Trafford next Tuesday night (13 March) with kick-off at 19:45 GMT. The battle for a quarter-final spot is evenly poised after the two sides drew 0-0 in Spain in the first leg.