There's an outside chance that Manchester United could still finish in the top three in the 2015/16 Premier League. Who knows, the football club could even collect some silverware this season, with both the FA Cup and the Europa League still up for grabs.
Still, by most metrics, the 2015/16 season has not been a terrific one for Man United. The Red Devils have failed to return to their previous heights of Premier League dominance, even with last season's champions (Chelsea FC) flaming out of the title race early on. Rumors about Louis van Gaal exiting the job of manager-either by way of sacking or resignation-have also been commonplace this season. Even Adidas, United's kit manufacturer, acknowledged how boring the team's soccer squad has looked out on the field this season.
The Birth of a Star?
Regardless of these factors, though, there have still been a few bright spots in Manchester United's 2015/16 campaign. One of the brightest of these came in a February 25th home match against Denmark's FC Midtjylland. The game, which functioned as the second leg of the Europa League's round of 32, was a make-or-break moment for the Red Devils. They'd lost to Midtjylland 1-2 in the first leg and needed a clean win to push their way into the round of 16.
Rather than just skating through with a 1-0 win, though-which would have earned United a win in the round of 32 based on away goals-the Red Devils completely dominated the Danish football club. After falling behind 0-1 at the 27-minute mark, things looked dire for a moment. However, the former English champions got a reprieve when Midtjylland conceded an own goal just five minutes later and went on to play arguably the best 30 minutes of soccer they've played all season in the second half.
Man United scored four goals in the closing half hour of the match to win a decisive victory and put themselves in the next round of the knockout stage. Even more remarkably, the hero of the match was a complete unknown: 18-year-old forward Marcus Rashford. Rashford scored two goals in quick succession to put the Red Devils up 3-1 over Midtjylland. Ander Herrara and Memphis Depay then followed with goals of their own, to turn United's win into a bonafide season highlight. Talk about a turnaround.
The Story Behind Rashford's Big Debut
Up until that February 25th Europa League fixture, Rashford had never featured in a senior football match before. Now, he's one of United's biggest up-and-coming stars. Could the youngster be United's best chance of salvaging the soccer season?
To understand just what Rashford could mean to the Red Devils going forward-both in the final act of the 2015/16 and in the years to come-we have to look at how the 18-year-old attacker got his big break in the first place.
For most of the season, Rashford has been playing as part of United's U-19 team. He's no newcomer to Old Trafford: the 18-year-old has been a part of United's youth program since 2005. Louis van Gaal even had Rashford as a substitute-on-bench for two Premier League games earlier in the season: a pair of November fixtures against Watford and Leicester City, respectively. Rashford didn't ultimately see any playing time in either of those games, but a meticulous eye could have seen him as a potential up-and-coming talent from looking at United's lineups.
Rashford finally made it onto the pitch in United's February 25th match against Midtjylland because Louis van Gaal had no other choice. Wayne Rooney was out with a knee injury. Anthony Martial was sidelined (at the last minute, no less) with a hamstring injury, after getting hurt in the warm-up. Those two, who have traded off the role of center forward throughout the 2015/16 season, were among about a dozen players who Van Gaal had to leave out of the lineups for both the Midtjylland Europa League match and the following weekend's Premier League match against Arsenal. In other words, the Dutch manager was running out of players to put on the pitch, and he turned to United's youth academy for reinforcements.
That decision could have easily been a disastrous one. It could have given Manchester United's board a reason to sack Louis van Gaal at last. An early elimination from the Europa League or a huge loss in that key EPL game against Arsenal would have been tough for the Red Devils (and, for that matter, their fans) to recover from.
A Record-Breaking Performance
Instead, Van Gaal got lucky. Rashford realized every bit of his potential in the February 25th Midtjylland match, taking up Rooney's role as center forward and coming away with two goals. The first of those two made Rashford the youngest Manchester United player ever to score in a European competition. The second made him one of the most talked about talents in the world of soccer.
The achievement wasn't a fluke, either: just three days later, Rashford made his Premier League debut at Old Trafford, taking the center forward position against Arsenal. At the 29-minute mark, Rashford broke the ice and scored the first goal of the match (and the first goal of his Premier League career). He's the third youngest United player ever to score in an EPL game, after Federico Macheda and Danny Welbeck. Three minutes later, he scored again.
Ironically, Danny Welbeck scored Arsenal's first goal of the match at the 40-minute mark, but it wasn't enough. In a competitive match that saw Manchester United trailing in possession time and relying largely on defense, Rashford's early brace provided the edge the Red Devils needed to grab a win. He even provided the assist that allowed Herrara to bring United's goal total to three in the second half. He was absolutely, unequivocally, the man of the match.
The Next Chapter
The question now is how Marcus Rashford will fit into Manchester United's lineup as the football club's many injured players start coming back into the game. Anthony Martial is expected to make a quick recovery from his relatively minor injury. Rooney's sideline spell will probably last a bit longer, but when both men are back to full heath, where will that leave Rashford?
With all of the praise that is understandably coming Rashford's way right now-and with how the youngster saved Man United from almost certain defeat in a pair of key matches-it would be tough to leave him on the bench or send him back to the U-19 squad. With the win against Arsenal,and Manchester City showing some pretty glaring weaknesses in the past few weeks, the Red Devils could have a chance to snag a podium position before the season runs out. To get there, though, he'll need someone who injects excitement and momentum into United's often dry play style, and Marcus Rashford might just be the best man for the job.
Then again, Marcus is very young, and as Van Gaal has noted, a lot of praise and pressure could easily go to his head. Is this teenager with just three senior starts under his belt really ready to take up the center forward role on a permanent basis? And if he does become a regular part of the lineup, who will get pushed out of the squad? Will it be fellow forward Memphis Depay, who has been something of a disappointment since coming to Old Trafford from PSV Eindhoven? Will it be Anthony Martial, who Louis van Gaal paid so handsomely for last summer? Will it be winger and rising star Jesse Lingard?
Only time will tell what decision Louis van Gaal will make going forward, and frankly, it's not an enviable one. Still, we hope we'll be seeing a lot more of Marcus Rashford on the field during the last few months of the 2015/16 season. The 18-year-old debutante has, quite simply, given Manchester United supporters something to cheer for again.
Do you think Rashford can help turn things around at Manchester United? Could the Red Devils still manage a Champions League qualification and some potential silverware from the FA Cup or the Europa League?