Can Marcus Rashford pull something from season’s wreckage in Cup final?

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Marcus Rashford;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Marcus Rashford</a>’s failure to improve in the closing weeks of the season has cost him his England place.</span><span>Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters</span>

Marcus Rashford’s finger-to-the-temple, eyes-closed goal celebration is a moment of contemplative stillness. Unveiled last season, it is the Manchester United forward’s version of the shush. The noise around him might be loud but it does not matter. He will cut through it with his focus and mental strength.

There was a difference when he showed it off against Manchester City in March. On that occasion, the eyes blazed and he could not help but scream. It was the Premier League derby at the Etihad and he had just scored one of the goals of his career – a rising 25-yard drive of furious power. Was it better than his Ronaldo-esque, 40-yard knuckleball free-kick at Chelsea in a Carabao Cup tie in 2019? Maybe.

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Really, though, the outpouring was triggered by the personal, emotional context. This is what proving a point looks like and as Rashford looks ahead to Saturday’s FA Cup final against City, he is back on familiar territory – doubted to the point of being unwanted; required to mine deeply into his resolve and talent.

Before the previous meeting with City, Rashford was so affected by the criticism of his form – which had been particularly unforgiving after a poor performance in the FA Cup win at Nottingham Forest – he responded with an open letter in the Players’ Tribune.

Rashford felt his commitment to United had been questioned, his very desire to play the game; the cod psychology of his body language was too much. His words bristled with defiance. “Every single time I’ve been down, physically or mentally, I always feel like that’s when I turn it around and play my best football for United and England,” he wrote.

Enjoying the highs, bouncing back from the lows – it is a footballer’s life but is there one who has fluctuated so wildly between the extremes as Rashford over the past four seasons?

The latest body blow was doled out by the England manager, Gareth Southgate, on Tuesday. It had been advertised after the international break in March when Rashford, having played for only 15 minutes, against Brazil (and badly at that), was reminded by Southgate there were compelling alternatives to him in the wide attacking positions.

It was a warning: improve or face the axe for Euro 2024. Rashford did not improve, failing to score in seven United games or play with any incision, a three-week injury absence not helping. So Southgate axed him. He could have postponed the decision and named Rashford in the provisional squad for the tournament, kicking the can down the road. But why do that when he thinks Rashford is done, at least for this season?

Rashford could score a hat-trick in the Cup final and it would not matter to Southgate. Or perhaps that would just have complicated the situation. Southgate felt he needed to act now, partly because of who Rashford is; the size of his profile. It was interesting to hear Southgate describe him as someone who “externally has people jump on him very quickly”.

Rashford’s lost season of 2021-22 has been recalled, even though he has not quite plumbed the depths to such an extent. Not quite. Back then, it looked as if he could do nothing right, all the old certainties having deserted him. He would later say that mental health problems were a factor.

He had been good the previous season – 2020 was also the year in which his child food poverty campaign made him a national hero – and his form spiked again, dramatically, in 2022-23; 30 goals for United, named as the club’s player of the season. It was a feelgood comeback story.

This time out, it has not just been the low goals return (eight for United, one for England). There were the terrible optics of him hitting the town to celebrate his 26th birthday after United’s defeat against City at Old Trafford last October and the notorious night out in Belfast in January, which had him report ill for training the next morning and dropped for the weekend’s FA Cup tie at Newport. Erik ten Hag would recall him for the following game, at Wolves, and see him score after five minutes.

In the corresponding Wolves fixture last season – on New Year’s Eve – Ten Hag had dropped him after Rashford overslept and missed the pre-match meeting. The forward came off the bench to score the winner and there was instant forgiveness. If you are going to err on the disciplinary front, best to do so when you are in excellent touch in front of goal.

Did Rashford really prove his point with the firecracker against City at the Etihad? On one level, yes. It showed that his capacity to do something extraordinary endures. On another, no. His performance was otherwise 4/10 – erratic, lacking in conviction.

United’s run to the Cup final stands as a monument to Rashford’s season. He played well in the third-round win at Wigan, involved in most of the team’s best moments, even if he was also wasteful. Then came Newport and Forest. In the quarter-final against Liverpool, he blew a glorious chance to win it in stoppage time before sparking the extra-time comeback with the equaliser for 3-3. Then came Coventry in the semi-final when he laboured dreadfully.

It was easy to feel and hear the frustration of the United support towards Rashford that day. True fans love him and always will. But maybe – as in many families – it goes back to how people can be harsher with those they hold dear.

The reaction to the Players’ Tribune piece is worth remembering. When a player makes such a move, tugging at tribal club ties and essentially inviting supporters to rally against sinister external forces (the media), it tends to end one way. Not this time. Many of the comments focused on Rashford’s need to sort himself out.

Can he produce something, anything, out of the wreckage against City at Wembley? Will he even start? When Southgate gave him the bad news, he told him to “go and score a couple of goals at the weekend and put things right”. As usual with Rashford, the response is everything.