Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard performed well above any expectations against Chelsea on Sunday. Whether Jose Mourinho really was resting Zlatan Ibrahimovic or not, his team selection worked emphatically. Comparisons to Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole’s prolific partnership were a little over-the-top, but Rashford and Lingard worked in a duo to produce a dynamic attacking performance better than any from Manchester United this season.
Rashford was occupying three or four Chelsea defenders at a time. A poor display from the Blues was epitomised by their difficulties dealing with not only Rashford’s well publicised pace, but his devastating upper body power too. Lingard drifted across the pitch, creating holes in the Chelsea defence that Rashford decisively exposed with well-timed bursts of speed. It was a textbook match of forward play between the two, given the freedom to play wherever they felt could be most detrimental to Chelsea.
Looking on from the bench was Manchester United’s top scorer and one of the best players in a generation: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Having scored the majority of the club’s goals this season and carrying a reputation greater than anyone else at the club, the Swede’s exclusion was presumed to be a rest ahead of another vital Europa League match this Thursday.
Having once again failed to put the tie to bed in the first leg, United bring Anderlecht to Old Trafford with the tie on the brink at 1-1. Ibrahimovic – whose future is not yet confirmed with murmurings of a move to MLS this summer – has been the club’s clear player of the season. With Chelsea’s vulnerability against height, the Blues would have been delighted to see the 6′ 5″ centre forward chatting away on the bench before kick-off.
What followed, however, could do a rare thing. It could cast doubt into the mind of Mourinho. Few managers can boast the same self-confidence and assertiveness as the Portuguese serial winner, but even he must be wondering if Rashford and Lingard are the forwards he must be prioritising ahead of a must-win European clash.
Two Mancunian academy graduates dominating against the league leaders gave the club a lift it needed. Rashford’s status as boy wonder has returned, while Lingard’s role in the squad needed reaffirming after he signed a monster contract. Even Mourinho must be tempted by the romanticism of it all.
Ibrahimovic, though, is still one of the world’s best strikers. His record this season – despite missed chances – speaks for itself. Rashford may have proved himself in the pressure situations already in his career, but he does not have the same track record as the former Barcelona man when it comes to the tensest of moments, particularly in front of an expectant Old Trafford crowd with Champions League qualification potentially on the line.
A front two pairing may be the answer for this often uptight Manchester United attack, but there is no doubt of Ibrahimovic’s value. The Swede has a vital role to play, even if it is only for the remainder of this campaign.