Red Devils and England striker has struggled with injuries this year but is set to be back in action for crucial run of games for Solskjaer’s side
The last time Marcus Rashford kicked a ball in competitive football, it rebounded back off the post and perhaps altered the destination of Euro 2020. The last appearance he made was at right-back, albeit an auxiliary one, brought on for a penalty shootout in which he missed.
Three months after the Euro 2020 final, following shoulder surgery, the new recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Manchester and a scorer of two goals in a behind-closed-doors friendly last week could make a comeback at Leicester City on Saturday.
Thus far, Rashford’s 2021 has illustrated his wider importance as a campaigner, a cultural force and a voice for the underprivileged. It was depressingly predictable that a symbolic figure was racially abused, along with Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, after England’s Wembley heartbreak; that Rashford’s was inches from being a perfect penalty scarcely factors into such considerations.
But it encapsulated how his year has been frustrating on the field. It has brought a mere eight goals in 38 games. Rashford revealed he had been playing through the pain barrier since last September, but it became harder as his shoulder got worse. It was why he was limited to five cameos and 85 minutes in Euro 2020, held in reserve as a specialist penalty taker by Gareth Southgate.
The last game Rashford completed was in May; his summer was bookended by penalty shootout defeats. There were marked differences with Manchester United’s Europa League final loss to Villarreal. Rashford started and stayed on, presumably with penalties in mind as he struggled. He converted his spot kick, but in vain.
His night in Gdansk was notable for the raw emotion displayed in his post-match interview, dismissing finishing as runners-up as being “losers” and talking of the sacrifice required to win trophies.
Rashford showed a self-sacrificial streak as injury hurt. He nevertheless made 64 appearances last season. He should have had surgery in the summer but instead joined up with England, though now he seems to have been overtaken by a host of newer figures.
Recency bias can mean his earlier feats are obscured but it is worth scrolling back a year to remember how good he was when he could play relatively unimpeded. He began last season with a run of seven goals in nine United games, including a winner away at Paris Saint-Germain and a Champions League hat-trick against RB Leipzig.
He had scored a career-best 22 goals the previous campaign. He was a poster boy for United’s revitalisation under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the young, quick, exciting, local boy who struck in many of the Norwegian’s flagship wins.
The United Rashford returns to differs from the side he left. Everything has been reshaped by Cristiano Ronaldo rejoining, especially the forward line. The competition for places has increased. Solskjaer prospered by moving Rashford to the left in 2019-20. Now, with Ronaldo the preferred striker, Anthony Martial struck from the left against Everton. Paul Pogba has a host of assists when operating there. Jadon Sancho has spent much of his brief United career there.
Rashford has pronounced he is in “a better place physically and mentally” but his position appears under threat. Yet United’s defining matches in the next month – against Leicester, Atalanta, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City – could call for his capacity to flourish on the major stages. And, given United’s recent travails, for the attitude he showed in disappointment in Gdansk.
“The club, the desire, the hunger, the talent, the ability, the squad … we have everything to compete at the highest level,” he said then. “We just have to show it to the world and show it to ourselves.” It is still truer now than it was then.