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Marcus Rashford must be patient to become a star

One year ago, Marcus Rashford was an unknown teenager, focusing as much on his end-of-year exams at Ashton-on-Mersey School as the day-to-day grind of earning a place in Manchester United's Under-21 team.

Then 18, the Manchester-born forward was so far down the pecking order at Old Trafford that he had reporters and supporters alike searching the internet for information when, after Anthony Martial suffered an injury during the prematch warm-up, Rashford was named in the starting XI for the Europa League tie against FC Midtjylland at Old Trafford on Feb. 25.

Ninety minutes later, he walked off the pitch having made the most spectacular United debut since Wayne Rooney's hat trick against Fenerbahce 12 years earlier. Two goals and a display of prodigious pace and energy in a 5-1 win marked Rashford's entrance onto the big stage and the youngster has not looked back.

On Sunday, he is set to play at Wembley in the EFL Cup final against Southampton, aiming to win his second major winners' medal in what will be just his 53rd senior appearance for United.

There have been bumps in the road this season — overlooked by Sam Allardyce during the manager's sole game in charge of England and some time spent on the bench watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic run riot under Jose Mourinho at United — but 53 games in 12 months is anything but a diet of sporadic appearances here and there.

Much of the focus at Wembley will be on Rooney and how much the United captain, having spent the week at the centre of speculation over a move to China before insisting he will remain at the club this season, will be involved in potentially his last major showpiece occasion.

But while one star fades, Rashford's is beginning to burn brighter and his increasing involvement under Mourinho emphasises his importance to United as the club begin to prepare for life without Rooney.

The irony for Rashford, however, is that his rise to the top came from one of those "Sliding Doors" moments, with not one, but two, lucky breaks clearing his path to Louis van Gaal's team during an injury crisis last season.

With Will Keane suffering a groin injury during the closing stages of United's FA Cup victory at Shrewsbury Town three days before the Midtjylland tie, Van Gaal had no other option available to sit on his bench than the untried Rashford — prior to his call-up, he had not even trained with the first-team, so it was not as though the Dutch manager could claim to have spotted his talent on the training pitch.

He was simply there as emergency cover, and perhaps to gain some experience from being around the first-team, but when Martial complained of a muscle strain less than an hour before kickoff against the Danish club, Van Gaal had to throw Rashford in at the deep end.

He was nothing less than a shot in the dark. And but for two injuries, Rashford may still be an unknown, waiting for a loan move to prove his worth or even fighting for his future in the game.

Both Van Gaal and Rashford benefited from fortuitous circumstances, but after Midtjylland the youngster never looked back, scoring twice in his next game against Arsenal, netting the winner in a 1-0 derby victory against Manchester City at the Etihad and going on to play in the FA Cup final success against Crystal Palace at Wembley.

 

Marcus Rashford has the potential to become a top player at Manchester United.

Rashford ended last season with eight goals in 18 appearances — all starts — and was handed his senior England debut. He marked his debut with a goal against Australia and subsequently earned a place in Roy Hodgson's Euro 2016 squad (becoming England's youngest ever player at the European Championships when he came on against Wales.)

But with Van Gaal losing his job and the potential barrier of so-called "second-season syndrome" to overcome, there were questions about how he would he cope under Mourinho. Would 2016 prove to be a one-off, with Rashford merely the latest young star to come and go in the blink of an eye?

Mourinho's first decision at United was to sign Ibrahimovic, telling club staff that neither Rashford nor Martial were experienced enough to shoulder the goal scoring burden on their own.

Ibrahimovic's presence denied Rashford the central striker role that he favours and reduced him to just 18 starts from his 34 appearances in all competitions. But those around the club talk of Ibrahimovic's positive influence on Rashford and how the youngster idolises the 35-year-old Swede, who has confounded expectations by scoring 24 goals in 37 games this season.

Rashford wants to start more games and score more goals but Mourinho, who refers to him as "The Kid," knows the value of the young star he has at his disposal. He recently admitted that Rooney is being forced to sit on the bench because of his desire to involve Rashford as often as possible and rarely a game now goes by without him making an appearance.

Mourinho must also manage Rashford and protect his development. It may frustrate the player, but history shows that teenage stars who are over-worked during their youth tend to suffer the consequences of burn-out.

Rashford had made 31 senior appearances for United before his 19th birthday last October, but in contrast Rooney had racked up 82 for United and Everton; Michael Owen made 70 with Liverpool; Robbie Fowler, Owen's boy wonder predecessor at Anfield, 30 — though he spent much of his 19th year sidelined with a broken leg.

Injuries afflicted all three, with each suffering major problems before they were out of their teens. Rashford, so far, has been fortunate and avoided the setbacks that struck early for Rooney, Owen and Fowler, all of whom were past their best by their late-20s.

One year on from his incredible debut, Rashford is clocking up the games and, by Sunday evening, maybe the medals as well. He might yearn for more action, more starts than substitute outings, but Mourinho is being smart with "The Kid" and is clearly laying a path for him to become a central figure in the seasons to come

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