The pain came first for Manchester United. The glory may follow. A night of physical discomfort and mental anguish was eventually alleviated by Marcus Rashford. By finally disposing of Anderlecht, United find themselves 270 minutes away from a second trophy of the season and a return to the Champions League.
- [Rashford fires United into Europa League semi-finals]
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Yet few things come easily to Jose Mourinho. Taken to extra time by Belgian underdogs, stripped of key players at either end of the pitch, his fight on two fronts continues with fewer troops and minus his first lieutenant. First Marcos Rojo and then Zlatan Ibrahimovic departed, warriors whose bodies gave way in the most draining knockout competition of all. The Europa League semi-finals may have a different cast list.
Ibrahimovic hobbled off after hurting his knee in the last minute of normal time. The image of the talismanic Swede departing down the tunnel may yet be the Stretford End’s final view of him. His contract is up in the summer and there is no guarantee he will renew it.
If so, it was an inappropriate end. Ibrahimovic had a night when most things he tried backfired. A pass was over-hit by about 30 yards, a shot skewed so wide it nearly hit the corner flag. Rashford seemed to offer far more incision and, after Sunday’s display against Chelsea, he looked the future.
Yet none of that should detract from Ibrahimovic’s colossal contribution. He has delivered 28 goals in 46 games, scored a match-winning brace in a cup final and secured a place on the PFA Player of the Year shortlist: not bad for a man deep into his 36th year. Even with his tendency to have off-days, he still represented United’s best chance of a top-four finish.
Now that mantle passes to his deputy. It is as well that Rashford seems to relish responsibility and that he has a flair for the dramatic. It is timely that he has returned to form. His 107th-minute goal was a third in a four-game spell when he has been terrific.
But victories rarely come at such a cost. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were already sidelined for much of the remainder of the season. Rojo was then stretchered off, suggesting his campaign was cruelly curtailed when he had been in the best form of his United career.
Read the full article on eurosport.co.uk: Apprentice to Master: Rashford is ready to fill Zlatan void