The Match: Why George Best should be Marcus Rashford’s inspiration

When Marcus Rashford burst onto the scene, there was an element of fate about his arrival.

Not seen as one of Manchester United’s most exciting youth prospects, the local boy was brought into a matchday squad to sit on the bench as injuries to senior players as well as those above him in the youth setup’s hierarchy meant the Red Sea parted in front of him.

It would be crass to suggest that Rashford has simply walked through it, but the sense of destiny is hard to deny.

There’s also a very real sense in which he’s destined to play in a role for both club and country that, with all the excitement at his explosion onto the scene, never seemed to fit his goalscoring prowess. The fact that he’s coming to prominence at a time when his club has Romelu Lukaku and his country Harry Kane means Marcus Rashford looks like he’ll have to get used to playing from wider positions more often than not.

Of the eight starts that Rashford has been given this season in the Premier League and in Europe, Saturday afternoon’s victory over Tottenham Hotspur was the first time that the England international has been handed a central striking berth. And yet, you get the feeling that this was a quirk of the formation rather than anything significant. Jose Mourinho’s tactical decision to play a back three, presumably to match up against Tottenham’s formation, seems to be the difference, though, rather than any desire to play two up front for the majority of the rest of the season.

Modern football has changed in the last few years, though. The idea of categorising attacking players into wingers and strikers doesn’t always seem apt, and Rashford seems to fit into the current mould of attackers who play from wide positions but are still considered goalscorers. Just because he starts on the left of a front three doesn’t necessarily means he can’t get among the goals.

And it certainly doesn’t mean he can’t become a club legend.

Rashford’s 20th birthday falls on the same day as his club take on one of their most iconic rivals, Benfica, in a competition where the two have shared some classic battles.

Most notable, of course, is the 1968 European Cup final, where United beat Benfica 4-1 after extra time to claim the trophy at Wembey. But two years previously, in 1966, one performance seemed to spark a stellar career.

Manchester United drew Benfica in the European Cup quarter-final, a difficult draw against one of the best club sides in Europe, made harder by the fact the home leg was to be played first.

Already this was a significant game: it was United’s first European Cup quarter-final since February 1958 and the Munich Air Disaster. And whatever difficulties were raised by another quarter-final away leg were heightened in footballing terms, too, when a late Benfica goal meant the English champions would take only a slender 3-2 lead to Lisbon for the second leg.

But after just 11 minutes of the second leg in the Estadio da Luz, however, it became clear that there was no need to worry. After just 14 minutes, George Best, still a teenager, had scored twice and set one up as United blitzed their opponents and ran riot.

Best had been transformed almost overnight, from young, promising football into a world superstar, nicknamed El Beatle by the Portuguese press because of his performance. Dazzling the crowd in Portugal, he endeared himself to the world and he left the plane at Manchester airport wearing a sombrero and destined for tragic greatness.

Rashford, who scored his side’s winner in Lisbon last time, will no longer be a teenager by the time his side faces Benfica at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. But it’s probable that will, like Best, start from the left hand side, using his pace, dynamism and skill to light up the game.

If fate intervened to bring the young Englishman to the attention of Louis van Gaal and hand him a place in United’s starting lineup, then it might just be fate that gives him the same role in the team that a young George Best made his own before even truly making his name that night in Lisbon.

Rashford has no need to make his name, but embracing a wider role doesn’t need to mean wasting his abilities as a number 9. And whilst the name David Herd, Manchester United’s central striker on the night, may have faded to all but the most knowledgeable United fans since the 1960s, the name Best certainly hasn’t.