Beginning of the end for Zlatan
Ibrahimovic's United future could be in doubt if Rashford takes his chance in the striker's injury-forced absence
The time is now for Manchester United's real-life Goonies gang.
In Zlatan Ibrahimovic's absence, they have been gifted their long-awaited chance to dig deep into a well of potential riches.
A campaign with plenty still hanging in the balance now rests on the collective shoulders of youth rather than that of the Red Devils' elder statesman.
United's season has been shaped by the predictability of their former glory days but without an abundance of major silverware. Ibrahimovic's loss, in the final minutes of normal time against Anderlecht yesterday morning (Singapore time), has shifted that narrative.
Ironically, the misfortune of injury has arrived at an opportune moment, for Ibrahimovic as much as it has United.
The Midas touch has often eluded him at regular intervals, with the Swede's goal trail living proof that bad things happen in threes, and sometimes more.
It has not been the time-warp experience that Jose Mourinho would have many believing.
At regular intervals, Ibrahimovic has failed to score in successive games before redressing the balance, usually against perceived lesser opponents or during pressure-free encounters.
With the stakes significantly higher during Anderlecht's visit to Old Trafford, a late plot twist appeared inevitable.
Not even the 35-year-old could have envisaged how events of a third scoreless outing in a United shirt may now ultimately prove to be his final act.
The ongoing uncertainty over his United future may soon be embraced rather than admonished.
Impressive though his powers of longevity have been, its legacy would be decimated by another season of the whirlwind intensity that the EPL continues to demand.
His direct replacement yesterday, Anthony Martial, did not steal the spotlight from him. Repositioning it elsewhere in United's attacking line had a far more devastating impact.
Perseverance has been Marcus Rashford's forte in a season where his burgeoning talents have been largely overshadowed by the egotism of his fellow striker.
Weaker-willed players would interpret that marginalisation as a reflection of their abilities at the highest level.
That confidence would have taken a further hammering after missing a series of gilt-edged opportunities.
But, Rashford is far from an average 19-year-old striker.
He proved that his qualities have not dimmed with a clinical and decisive strike in the 17th minute of extra time.
At times, it has felt as though United's homegrown hero was destined to be remain a young pretender.
Having already usurped Wayne Rooney, Ibrahimovic had posed further obstacles.
With both now either incapacitated or simply an unattractive proposition to Mourinho, Rashford has the perfect opportunity to cement his long-term status as the Red Devils' leading light.
Next Friday's Manchester Derby could not have come at a better time. Rashford had truly announced himself to the footballing world with an early goal in last season's Etihad Stadium encounter.
Returning to the scene of his greatest crime, 13 months on, will be ample motivation as United seek to finish in the top four of the Premier League.
But he cannot do it alone.
Like Rashford, Martial had burst onto the scene to great fanfare but similarly found his path to the limelight obstructed, by both Ibrahimovic and Mourinho's lack of belief in him.
Sharp movement and other instinctive traits, which saw his original £36 million (S$64.4m) valuation initially trivialised under Louis van Gaal, returned with a vengeance.
A goal was all that was missing from the repertoire, although not for a lack of trying on Martial's part.
Paul Pogba, another that arrived with lofty expectations and a heavyweight price tag, also showed that he can influence proceedings by assisting Rashford in what was his best performance since securing a much-vaunted return to United last summer.
More of the same from him, and others, would further limit the impact of Ibrahimovic's loss.
- Genk 1 Celta Vigo 1
*Celta win 4-3 on aggregate
- Besiktas 2 Lyon 1
*Lyon win 7-6 on penalties after match ended 3-3 on aggregate after extra-time
- Schalke 3 Ajax Amsterdam 2
*Ajax win 4-3 on aggregate after extra-time
- Man United 2 Anderlecht 1
* Man United win 3-2 on aggregate after extra-time
- Celta Vigo v Man United
- Ajax Amsterdam v Lyon