Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford is in stunning form as Barcelona saw the Europa League clash firsthand

It took Marcus Rashford little more than an hour to turn one of the best defenses in Europe’s top five leagues into a cowering wreck. In all honesty, one could argue that Barcelona’s performance wasn’t too shabby given how quickly he wreaked havoc on other opponents in what is currently the hottest streak of any player on the planet.

Rashford has now scored 13 goals since the end of the World Cup, more than any other player in Europe’s five leagues, and in a competition teeming with attacking talent there was no question he shone brightest in the 2-2 draw between Manchester United and Barca . Had you not known otherwise, you would never have imagined that a player of Rashford’s talent (nor Raphinha’s) could be toiling away in the early days of the Europa League knockout stages.

Rashford deserves a bigger stage and he seems to know it. Early on in that golden run, much of the credit for the 25-year-old’s form went to Erik ten Hag for the staff reshuffle he undertook which put his striker in the right positions. Eliminated Cristiano Ronaldo, the static hub through which all attacks had to flow, while the introduction of the likes of Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez brought some progress and precision to United’s build-up game. Rashford got fast balls against defenses that didn’t have time to calm down, he had options around him and a position that suited him. It was the perfect place to rediscover his groove.

Thursday, however, suggests Rashford could have been ordered to sweep behind the back four and he would still have been the competition’s most devastating force. Manchester United’s King Midas turns competitions through sheer force of will as much as he exploits tactical inconsistencies.

After all, Xavi had made the necessary adjustments to give his team the best possible chance of slowing down Rashford. Ronald Araujo was swapped from his usual center-back role to the right flank, as it was believed Ten Hag’s star striker would find his best position on United’s left. Instead, Rashford drifted into the field and acted more as a runner in a strike pair with goalman Wout Weghorst, whose unselfish center forward play provides such a stable platform for United’s other attackers to excel.

Rashford’s heatmap at the Nou Camp

Rashford’s heatmap in Manchester United’s 2-2 draw with Barcelona

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From his central berth, Rashford was able to test the space between the two full-backs and their centre-backs, probing half-spaces and interacting with Jadon Sancho and Fred. Threats still abounded on the left, most notably a sizzling cross-shot in the first half that forced Marc-Andre ter Stegen to make a clever save.

Marcos Alonso’s opener against the run of the game could have taken United’s breath away, instead it was like injecting nitrous oxide into Rashford’s engine. When he received the ball from Fred just outside the box, his first touch seemed a little too heavy to the untrained eye. Nothing of the same. Alonso lagged behind him but the angle was certainly too narrow to beat Ter Stegen. Instead, the ball thundered past the German near the post. It’s easy to indulge in well-known clich├ęs that a goalkeeper should never be beaten there, but Rashford hit the ball so quickly that even the best in the world didn’t have time to react.

This was a faceoff ball served by United. Rashford demanded possession and delivered in every stance for a time. Jules Kounde, lucky enough to avoid a red card and concede a penalty for an altercation with United’s number 10, was only able to turn the ball into his own net when Rashford caught a short corner, beating his man and the ball drove deep into the box.

Rashford was undoubtedly the star, but many others reinforced their reputation against a Barcelona side who, save for a late surge of pressure, looked a far cry from the Premier League’s third-best side.

“We dictated the game,” observed Ten Hag.

He wasn’t wrong. Casemiro and Raphael Varane exuded authority while Fred brought momentum to the competition after a slow start.

Had United held on to the 2-1 lead the star striker earned for them, it would have been another famous night at the Nou-Camp, not one that ranks alongside the madness of 1999 but on par with Rashford’s other great European night in which he eliminated Paris Saint. Germain from the Champions League four years ago. It’s the stage he belongs on and United are on track not only to return to the continent’s biggest competition, but to thrive there.

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