Marcus Rashford's dream Man United debut sets up Liverpool tie
Louis van Gaal had a point when he mentioned "the law of Murphy" after Manchester United's defeat to Midtjylland last week and, on Thursday, he had reason to curse again.
Seven days after David De Gea suffered an injury prior to the Europa League Round of 32 first leg, Anthony Martial, United's most exciting outfield player, pulled out during the warm-up for the return fixture.
Things got even worse when Midtjylland took the lead at Old Trafford, in front of a 58,609 crowd that was boosted by thousands of children. Credit to United for engaging so actively with local schools. The kids watched with enthusiasm but, despite playing well, United were 3-1 down on aggregate and Midtjylland had a vital away goal.
It was a wonderful story for the Danes, but no football team does wonderful stories like Manchester United. The city is famous for its inclement weather and has many clouds, but United so often provide the silver linings.
United's squad has never suffered so many injuries and fans shake their heads in disbelief when they hear of the latest casualty, like it's a curse. But the absence of so many first-team regulars has meant chances for young players and it's to Van Gaal's credit that he continues to turn to youth.
He has little choice, but he could have brought in loan or permanent signings in January to mitigate against long-term injuries. Instead, he insisted that he didn't want to hold back the progress of his youthful charges.
He had belief in them and if he leaves tomorrow -- the majority of United fans wouldn't object if he did -- one of the positives of his spell in England will be giving so many young players an opportunity, something he has done throughout his managerial career.
Marcus Rashford, an 18-year-old, United-supporting forward from the largely working class, south Manchester district of Wythenshawe, was only on the bench on Thursday because of injuries to other forwards including Wayne Rooney. When Martial pulled up, Rashford was told he would start.
He is used to filling in for injured players. An attacking midfielder until last season, he was asked to step in as a striker after his U18 teammate Demi Mitchell suffered a long-term injury. The shift worked and Rashford scored 13 goals.
Rashford signed for United in 2014. Before that he'd been at Fletcher Moss Rangers, a famous junior football club based in Didsbury, which tends to have the best young players in South Manchester, since the age of six.
Wes Brown played there, as did Daniel Welbeck, Tyler Blackett and Cameron Borthwick- Jackson. There are further young United talents, who played at Fletcher Moss, including Ro-Shaun Williams. The way it's going, Van Gaal will be calling on them as well.
Rashford was approached by Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City but, going against the current local trend, chose United. City have since tried to sign him again but he's stayed a red and, this season, has played for United's U18s, 19s and 21s.
In September, he scored twice and was the standout player when the U19s won 3-0 at their PSV Eindhoven equivalents 3-0 in the UEFA Youth League. That afternoon, former United players like Paddy Crerand and Ruud van Nistelrooy. The Dutch striker didn't know it at the time but United's coach Nicky Butt had been showing videos of him in action to Rashford.
The striker scored another in a 1-1 home draw against Wolfsburg and was captain as United won the return fixture 2-0 in December. It was a fine result, but poor home form meant it wasn't enough for United to qualify. Just like the first team, they went out at the group stage.
"He is one of those players who you like and ask yourself: 'How can he not play at the top level?'" Butt told me after the game. "In my opinion he is a top, top player. He has a lot to learn still obviously. He has to learn to get better at finishing and getting in the right areas. You want more goals and the coaching staff are always feeding him information.
"We show him videos of Ruud van Nistelrooy, for instance, and how he scored his goals in the six-yard area. Marcus tends to get a bit frustrated in there and comes out of the areas to get the ball and then tries to run through. That is a very difficult skill and you don't score many goals like that. But the added things are he has electric pace, a great work ethic and a willingness to learn."
Injuries and a shortage of first-team strikers meant Rashford had already been named as a substitute for United's Premier League games against Watford and Leicester in November and Van Gaal described the teenager as a fantastic talent long before he gave him a chance.
When he got his debut at short notice, Rashford took it with two second-half goals in front of the Stretford End to help his team to a 6-3 aggregate victory. After both goals, he ran straight to the section of the ground where friends and family of the players sit.
Dreams really do come true and his goals helped set up a Round of 16 game against Liverpool, a tie that has brought considerable excitement to United fans, given that it is the first time the two teams have met in European competition.
Van Gaal has won all four games he's played against Liverpool as United manager and the club have never lost a European tie to British opposition. Tickets for the second leg at Old Trafford on Mar. 17 will be sold at a 25 percent discount.
Rashford turned the tie in his side's favour but the victory was not against a European giant and people won't get carried away. Arsenal will provide very tough opponents on Sunday, but the makeshift United -- and credit must also go to left-back Joe Riley, who only made his debut at Shrewsbury on Monday -- attacked because they had to.
Supporters loved that and, for one night in a largely dour season, it was great feeling to be a United fan again.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.