That only Erling Haaland has scored more goals than Marcus Rashford among Premier League players in all competitions this season places the England striker’s progress in perspective as his 18th of the season allowed Manchester United to place one foot in the Carabao Cup final.
If Sunday’s defeat at Arsenal curtailed any optimistic dreaming of Premier League glory, perhaps it served to enhance Erik ten Hag’s appetite to land a more realistic target for silverware in the cups. His first XI made short shrift of Nottingham Forest in the first leg of this semi-final as further goals from Wout Weghorst and Bruno Fernandes gave them a comfortable cushion ahead of next Wednesday’s return at Old Trafford.
Casemiro, back after he was suspended at the Emirates, leant a poise and drive to United’s midfield but it was Rashford’s brilliant directness that helped set them apart from opponents who are now free to focus on retaining their Premier League status.
Forest played well enough in the first half, but Fernandes’s third goal a minute from time, when he rammed home a low drive after being picked out by Anthony Elanga, provided a measure of the difference between these teams.
Marcus Rashford has never played better than this, first at the World Cup with England and then flying down the left for Manchester United. He scored a virtuoso solo goal that summed up all his qualities.
Rashford has never looked fitter, and never seemed so confident in his body’s ability to withstand opponents’ challenges or their futile attempts to keep pace with him. Rashford is in a fantastic place, physically and mentally, and will soon be back in a familiar place called Wembley.
Barring an unlikely comeback by Nottingham Forest on Wednesday, Rashford and Manchester United are heading to the Carabao Cup final on February 26. United’s fans certainly believe so and sang endlessly about Wembley, especially after Rashford had scored early, Wout Weghorst had pounced on the cusp of half-time and then Bruno Fernandes late on.
Forest will try their hardest at Old Trafford next week. They are a team managed by Steve Cooper, and he fills players with belief. They have players like Brennan Johnson and, if he recovers from an ankle injury, Morgan Gibbs-White, with the confidence to take on defences, and United were grateful to Lisandro Martínez at times here. Forest will be passionately supported at the Theatre of Dreams but reaching Wembley is surely a dream too far. Rashford could pick them off, as here.
Six years have passed since the last time Manchester United won a trophy: a blink of the eye for many clubs accustomed to decades of mediocrity but a slump unmatched in a generation for the club that has a reputation built on all that power and glory.
Erik ten Hag is now just 90 minutes from Wembley in his first season in charge, and although it is only the League Cup final that potentially awaits, great empires have been built with this first stone. Nottingham Forest will come to Old Trafford on Wednesday with only the faintest hope that they can reverse the tie. It felt like this home leg at the City Ground was the big chance and when their moment came they threw it away.
There were no trophies at Old Trafford between the FA Cup triumphs of 1977 and 1983, and before that 1977 win for Tommy Docherty’s side it had been nine years and a relegation since the European Cup of 1968. Lean periods are measured in decades elsewhere – try 33 years at Forest since their last major honour – but for United those six years sting. Never more so than in the commercial department where they sell the story of success to their global partners.
It was not the most important goal a forward with the initials MR has scored for Manchester United against Nottingham Forest – not when Mark Robins went down in folklore as the man who saved Sir Alex Ferguson’s job – but it was possibly the best.
Perhaps the finest goal of what is shaping up as the greatest season of Marcus Rashford’s career might lead to the kind of prize United have lacked in recent seasons. As in 1990, when Robins struck against Brian Clough’s team, United could be on course to end a lengthy wait for silverware with a first honour of a manager’s reign. Erik ten Hag had described winning trophies as the best feeling. It is one United are on course to experience, with a three-goal lead to take back to Old Trafford and a probable Carabao Cup final after that.
Their road seems ever likelier to lead to Wembley. Rashford’s journey took him from United’s own half to the Forest box in an eviscerating burst. For the Mancunian, the last year has brought a route from the worst spell of his career to the best form: 12 months ago, he had already scored his last goal of the season. Now, with 10 goals in as many games, he is on course for his most productive campaign.
This was a game truly alive for only about a minute. That was the amount of time it took the VAR officials to decide that Sam Surridge’s equaliser midway through the first half would not stand. The Nottingham Forest forward was an inch or two offside.
Briefly they had been on their feet at the City Ground. Fathers were kissing sons and that kind of stuff. The last time Manchester United were here – in 1999 – they had won 8-1 so parity on this occasion would have felt important to a provincial club still trying to prove itself all over again in the modern era.
But the technology said no and superior quality, and it must be said application and industry, won out in the end. United were better by Forest by a distance but also more energetic and at times seemingly hungrier. That will have been disappointing not only to Forest manager Steve Cooper but also to those neutrals who hoped for a live second leg in Manchester next week. As it is, United will surely be at Wembley against Southampton or Newcastle at the end of February, the club’s first domestic cup final for five years.