On the plane? World Cup spot up for grabs as reborn Marcus Rashford rediscovers form

On the plane? World Cup spot up for grabs as reborn Marcus Rashford rediscovers form

It is not difficult to imagine the various places the Marcus Rashford of last season might’ve been as Christian Eriksen’s cross teased its way toward the back post.

On the edge of the box? On his heels? On the bench?

This, however, was Rashford reborn, revitalised under Erik ten Hag and perhaps now on the verge of a recall to Gareth Southgate’s England squad on the eve of the World Cup.

Southgate was here at Old Trafford watching on as Rashford darted in, climbed above Thilo Kehrer and headed powerfully past Lukasz Fabianski to give Manchester United a 1-0 victory over West Ham.

The header was one thing, an area of Rashford’s game Ten Hag revealed afterward he has been urging the forward to develop, but the desire - even desperation - in the run and leap said more about the way the Englishman has rediscovered the drive and directness that once defined him.

"It's a completely different energy around the whole club and training ground,” said Rashford, who turns 25 today. “That, for a start, puts me in a better head space. I just feel really motivated now, last year I struggled at times with things off the pitch and wasn't mentally right."

The goal was Rashford’s 100th in United colours a milestone he admitted had been on his mind in recent weeks and surely for much longer than that, given goal No90 arrived more than a year ago.

Last term, Rashford scored just five times in 32 appearances in all competitions but has seven in 15 already this season, though the stats tell only part of the story: just as Rashford’s resurgence is a greater symbol and symptom of United’s improvement under Ten Hag, his decline was about more than a striker losing his touch in front of goal. There were times in the months after last year’s Euro 2020 final, and the horrific racist abuse he endured following his penalty shootout miss, where Rashford did not look simply out of form but completely gone at the game.

 (AP)
(AP)

Equally, there is no need to get carried away. Rashford is not suddenly in line for a starting berth in Qatar and though much improved, is not yet matching the standards being set by the likes of Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden.

That pair seem to be vying for a place on one side of England’s front three, the assumption being that Raheem Sterling remains a lock on the other. The Chelsea winger has not scored a Premier League goal since August and was dragged just after the hour-mark in Saturday’s grim 4-1 defeat at Brighton but has ample and deserved credit in the bank with England. Going into Euro 2021, Sterling had scored once in 15 games for Manchester City and still lit up the tournament.

Rashford is instead competing for a spot among Southgate’s supporting cast, most likely against the likes of Jarrod Bowen, who was one of three West Ham players to go almightily close to a late equaliser here, the winger denied by Harry Maguire’s block while both Kurt Zouma and Declan Rice saw efforts brilliantly saved by David de Gea.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Rashford’s advantage is that he is part of the club, featuring at each of the past three major tournaments, while Bowen, who had never represented England at any level until his senior debut in June, still feels like the new boy.

Southgate, you sense, would like to have stuck by Rashford even through his struggles, as he has with Maguire, but the quality of competition made that impossible. Now, though, he has reason to call him in from the cold.