Twenty-five yards out with minimum backlift and leaving a three-time Champions League winning goalkeeper for dead – Marcus Rashford’s stunning strike against Costa Rica would, had it been saved for 11 days’ time in Volgograd, gone down in the pantheon of great England goals.
As it was, the goal was merely the highlight of a pre-tournament friendly and as such will likely only go down as a footnote in his burgeoning Three Lions career. But as much as it provided Gareth Southgate with a timely reminder as to his abilities he will have hoped that somewhere Jose Mourinho, too, was making notes.
The precocious 20-year-old started just 17 Premier League matches for Manchester United last season. Mourinho opted to keep an injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the club, believing he would provide better back-up as a central striker to Romelu Lukaku than Rashford. In January he brought in Alexis Sanchez to further force the youngster down the pecking order. During this window he has already been linked with West Ham’s Marko Arnautovic. Where would Rashford sit should that move come to fruition?
And yet here was Rashford, unshackled from Mourinho the disciplinarian, running the show against a team who reached the quarter-finals in Brazil four years ago. It is almost as if that with the shackles off he feels free to unveil all his best attributes.
“Towards the end of the season you can see that he cares so much that he’s trying too hard,” said Southgate post-match. “I said to the team that I expect to see mistakes because otherwise we’re not trying things, and with attacking players in particular. Then they might produce some of the moments we saw from Marcus.
“The goal was world-class but he was teasing defenders by the touchline. His performance wasn’t perfect but he was enjoying himself, and that was good to see.” Whether meant as a thinly-veiled dig at Mourinho or not, it is clear Southgate is getting right what Mourinho seems to be getting wrong when it comes to the young protege’s development.
Having begun the night by having his named jokingly booed by large sections of the sell-out crowd in West Yorkshire due to his Old Trafford connections, Rashford took up the same role that Raheem Sterling usually occupies behind the central striker – this time Jamie Vardy rather than Harry Kane.
Knowing Vardy would stick rigidly to his position up front, Rashford was free to roam, popping up regularly on both flanks in a bid to terrorise all three members of the visiting defence. Fancy flicks, impish through-balls and drawing fouls everywhere he went; this was a virtuoso first-half performance that seasoned veterans dream of, albeit one spattered with the odd wrong decision that can be put down to immaturity.
Whether it will be enough to earn him a start against Tunisia on June 18 remains to be seen. Sterling and Kane are unlikely to be dislodged from Southgate’s first-choice team any time soon, and as such chances for Rashford may initially have to come from the bench. But if he can be allowed this same freedom when his chance eventually comes, then he could yet be the difference maker come crunch time.
In truth he did fade out of the game after the break as, much like in the Nigeria game on Saturday, the Three Lions took their foot off the pedal in the second half. But 45 minutes of Rashford at the top of his game is sometimes all a side like England will require and he was still able to play a part in Danny Welbeck’s goal that secured victory late on.
Elsewhere there were other eye-catching displays from Fabian Delph, Danny Rose and Jordan Henderson suggested Southgate certainly has the depth in his 23-man squad to make alterations should they be required this summer. Expectations might be relatively low back home, but there are reasons England have been tipped as dark horses by fans around the globe.
It was Rashford, though, who proved to be the star of the show for what will not be the last time in his career. He might need someone other than Mourinho, though, to ensure it is coaxed out of him more often than not.