Marcus Rashford: The perfect Euro 2016 wildcard for England
10th June 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
In the build-up to a major international tournament, the impact of injuries is often felt, when it comes to squad preparation. This summer's European Championship in France has been no different, with high-profile names such as Germany's Marco Reus and Ilkay GÃ¼ndo?an, and France's RaphaÃ«l Varane and Lassana Diarra, all ruled out through injury.
And over the years, England too have been hampered by some of their top men being hurt. In 2002 the Three Lions lost Gary Neville to injury, while his Manchester United colleague David Beckham faced a race against time to overcome a fractured metatarsal. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Wayne Rooney's recovery from his own metatarsal break meant that he wasn't able to play from the start of a match until England's third group game against Sweden.
The same injury had put paid to Rooney's breakout Euro 2004 campaign, exiting the quarter-final tie against Portugal early after having had his foot trodden on by Jorge Andrade. Who knows what would have happened had the then England boss, Sven-GÃ¶ran Eriksson, not been forced to swap the flying 18-year-old for Darius Vassell after only 27 minutes; maybe England would've been able to overcome the host nation, instead of losing on penalties.
But this time, as Roy Hodgson was piecing together his Euro 2016 squad, he could thank the injury gods for one small grace or maybe that should be two small graces.
Two injuries, both of which were sustained in February, have had an enormous, if indirect, positive impact on England's chances of glory in France.
The first was sustained by a player who was never in contention to make Hodgson's squad, the second by a young man who is completely ineligible for England and will in fact be lining up for the host nation.
After Will Keane hobbled off the New Meadow pitch in the closing stages of Manchester United's FA Cup fifth-round match-up against Shrewsbury Town, the former England under-21 international would not be able to take his place on the bench for the midweek Europa League visit of FC Midtjylland at Old Trafford.
Then, when French forward Anthony Martial complained of a tight hamstring during the warm-up for the Midtjylland game, not only was 18-year-old Marcus Rashford going to be part of the first-team squad for the first time, he was going to start.
Rashford, though a relative unknown amongst fans around the country, was regarded as an exciting prospect within the United academy and under-21 set-up. Anyone who'd watched him graduate through the club's youth ranks would have been aware of his ability.
But by the same token, Rashford was still thought to be a year or two from first-team readiness; his talent was still raw and the finer details of his game would need polishing.
Rashford immediately set about defying that assessment. Although the Danish side are hardly one of Europe's elite clubs, this was still a game of importance for United, after losing the first leg 2-1. Unfazed by the occasion, and undaunted by performing in front of the Old Trafford crowd, Rashford played as though he was just having a kick about in the park with a few friends; fearless as he displayed skill and trickery while linking play as United's lone striker, and demonstrating his positional awareness in finding pockets of space within the opposition's penalty area.
Despite Rashford's confident start to his debut, United looked shaky. And when Pione Sisto fired the visitors into the lead making it 3-1 on aggregate fans inside Old Trafford began to fear the worst. A fortuitous own-goal equaliser was followed by a Juan Mata penalty miss, meaning the Red Devils went in at the break level on the night, but still trailing by a goal in the aggregate score.
Then, with little over an hour played, United's teenage debutant wrote himself into club history, scoring twice to turn the tie on its head, giving United the overall lead and becoming their youngest ever European competition scorer.
Two goals two composed finishes in front of the Stretford end. United went on to rout the Dane's 5-1, with Ander Herrera and Memphis Depay adding to the scoresheet, but there was only one name on the lips of United fans as they left Old Trafford Marcus Rashford, their new local hero.
On the back of such an impressive display, United boss Louis van Gaal selected Rashford to start again in the next game, at home to Arsenal in the Premier League.
And once again the Manchester-born youngster grasped the opportunity with both hands, helping himself to another brace as United won 3-1.
By this point, sending Rashford back down to the under-21 side was impossible, he had made himself key to United's final months of the season. He continued to prove himself to be a man for the big occasion, scoring in the Manchester derby and settling an FA Cup quarter-final replay away to West Ham with a spectacular curling effort.
When Roy Hodgson announced his provisional 25-man Euro 2016 squad last month, Rashford was considered a surprise inclusion, particularly as Hodgson had previously claimed he wasn't considering the youngster for selection. But a virtuoso performance in his club's FA Cup final victory over Crystal Palace at Wembley though truncated by a minor leg injury surely cemented Rashford's place.
So Rashford would be given a chance to impress the national team boss during training over the next few weeks, and would make his England debut in the upcoming friendly against Australia.
Still an outside bet to make the final cut for Hodgson's 23-man squad, it was believed that only four strikers would be selected, and that they would be Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge.
But just as he has done at every career step-up to date, Rashford took to international football like a fish to water, scoring on his debut in less than three minutes. By this point, the 18-year-old rookie was a shoo-in for selection. Hodgson was being implored by fans and media to either take five strikers, or sacrifice one of his more established hit-men to make room for the United player.
So with Rashford's ticket to France now booked, what role will he play for England?
Well, at least initially, he will have to make do with a place on the bench which, having only made his professional debut at the end of February, he will surely be more than grateful of.
But even if only utilised as a substitute, Rashford's qualities make him a perfect wildcard option for Hodgson, should the England manager need to introduce someone to invigorate an otherwise drab performance, or provide the spark to unlock a resolute defence.
Rashford's pace will be an obvious asset, but there is so much more to the young man's game than just speed.
With a versatility that could see him operate not only as a striker, but also out wide on either wing, Rashford provides options for Hodgson when he wants to shuffle the deck.
The one-cap teenager is an excellent finisher having scored five goals from only nine shots on target in the Premier League last season so there need be no worry if, late on in a tight encounter, England's best scoring chance falls at the feet on the inexperienced United player. And his intelligent movement in and around the penalty area means that Rashford will place himself in the best possible position to receive such a chance.
But the greatest strength that Rashford will bring to the table is his fearlessness. At no point throughout his meteoric rise has the young man looked overawed by the task at hand. Constantly defying expectations every time they are raised, Rashford has the temperament of a hundred-cap veteran.
Just as Paul Gascoigne did at Italia 90, just as Michael Owen in 1998, and just as his captain, Wayne Rooney, did at Euro 2004, Rashford could make his mark on the international stage at Euro 2016.
And to think, had Will Keane not gotten injured, had Martial's hamstring not tightened moreover, had United not let Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and Javier Hernandez go in the summer, and loaned James Wilson to Brighton and Hove Albion few of us would have even heard the name Marcus Rashford.