Rashford holds key to United's top-four hopes
Young striker can save LVG's season and ruin West Ham's Upton Park farewell
WEST HAM v MAN UNITED
(Tomorrow, 2.45am, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
Louis van Gaal got it wrong with Marcus Rashford. He got lucky, but he was still wrong.
Only the striker can make it right now.
Rashford was rested on Saturday, with his manager incorrectly assuming that Norwich City would doff their caps and hand over the three points before edging towards the relegation trapdoor.
The Canaries were indeed eye-gougingly awful, but Manchester United were little better, relying on a Juan Mata strike to pinch victory.
West Ham will be less obliging tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
Their slim hopes of qualifying for Europe are less significant than the forthcoming footnote in the club's history.
The fixture marks the final hurrah at Upton Park, the last game at the iconic venue before the Hammers laugh all the way to the cut-price Olympic Stadium.
Defeat wouldn't be a disaster, but it would leave a grubby stain on the stadium's legacy; an undignified ending for a stage that once featured characters like Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, Billy Bonds and Trevor Brooking and Julian Dicks and Paolo di Canio.
On two separate occasions, Upton Park stood between Manchester United and the English Premier League title, and the bogeymen's fortress held firm.
The stakes are lower this time around, but the long-term repercussions are potentially more damaging for United.
West Ham are only at risk of losing face. Van Gaal is at risk of losing his job.
The final outcome may well rest with Rashford.
Against Swansea, the lacklustre Hammers shipped four goals and defended the box like scattered bowling pins. A longstanding aversion to speed was ruthlessly exposed.
Rashford must be watching replays of Swansea's goals like a famished fox eyeing an open door to the chicken coop.
He already has a soft spot for Upton Park. He opened the scoring with a stunning effort in the final FA Cup game at West Ham last month.
Repeat the trick in the final league game at the Boleyn Ground, the site where Queen Anne Boleyn once kept a castle, and delirious United fans will all be losing their heads.
The 18-year-old Rashford boasts a commodity so rare in the United squad that his current, salary of £1,500 ($3,000) a week is about to rise to £25,000.
He plays without fear.
United players were once defined by such positive character traits, but van Gaal battered them with his clipboard of tedious tactics like an endless game of Whack-A-Mole.
Juan Mata, Ashley Young, Adnan Januzaj, Jesse Lingard and even Wayne Rooney and Angel di Maria all submitted in the end, either accepting their straitjackets or leaving the club.
But van Gaal's inherent conservatism, such an alien concept at United in the past, hasn't yet curtailed Rashford's creative instincts.
Whether he will eventually suffer from prolonged exposure to the Dutchman's dogma is just one issue that the boardroom must address before next season.
Until then, the striker has a chance to save this one.
Four Premier League goals, two more in the Europa League and that exquisite finish at Upton Park to steer United into the FA Cup final appear to make Rashford impervious to pressure.
His energised performances are reminiscent of the United of old and the Leicester City of today. His willingness to scamper after every ball were qualities conspicuous by their absence in United's tedious trudge at Carrow Road.
Apart from Anthony Martial, no other United player comes close to replicating the speedster's enthusiasm and application, a damning reflection of a manager who has confused attacking freedom with recklessness.
Van Gaal got lucky with Rashford, stumbling upon the raw talent by accident, selecting him out of necessity rather than choice.
When the teenager was trying to establish himself in the Under-18s, van Gaal was finishing his £250-million spending spree.
Now the kid with a goofy grin is needed to save a legend who looks long in the tooth.
United demonstrated at Norwich that their once famous cutting edge has given way to blunt force trauma. It's heavy-handed and hard to watch.
Rooney used to treat Upton Park as a holiday home, spoiling himself with hat-tricks and wonder goals before his body clock betrayed him.
Mata drags his winger's duties along the touchline like a ball and chain, while Memphis Depay's presence in a United jersey continues to defy belief.
But Rashford offers a late, teasing glimpse at Champions League salvation.
A fast, inventive throwback to United's past could still secure United's future.
"You’ve got three games left in your season. What are you saving Rashford for? Maybe it’s just that he’s not interested in scoring goals. I think he judges a performance on possession."
— Paul Scholes’ response to Man United manager Louis van Gaal claiming he rested Marcus Rashford against Norwich
"I don’t understand it at all if you need to nick a goal in the last 15 minutes. Van Gaal is bonkers not picking him. You’ve got to have a striker on the bench to nick a goal — mad."
— Chris Sutton also disagrees with LVG’s decision to rest Rashford
"I see some of myself in him for sure — he has courage and he’s fast and is very good with the ball. I think for strikers, they have to be hungry to score and I see that with him. He has an amazing future."
— Ex-Brazil striker Ronaldo on Rashford
BY THE NUMBERS
Since making his debut for Manchester United against Midtjylland in February, Marcus Rashford has scored seven goals in 15 matches across three competitions.