MANCHESTER — If Manchester United’s Carabao Cup tie with Burton Albion was meant to be an audition for Jose Mourinho’s fringe players, it was one of his favourites who ended up stealing the show.
For all the talk about Mourinho’s record of trusting young players after his appointment at Old Trafford, only Paul Pogba made more United appearances than Marcus Rashford last season. He started against Everton on Sunday, too. Mourinho would have probably liked to rest him against Burton, currently 19th in the Championship, along with David De Gea, Antonio Valencia, Eric Bailly, Nemanja Matic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. But with Zlatan Ibrahimovic still recovering from knee surgery, Rashford is the only alternative to Romelu Lukaku, who started the night on the bench.
Lukaku was never likely to be risked from the start, but the Belgian was still the focus of much of the buildup. Three hours before kickoff, United tweeted “to remind fans of our commitment to ensuring Old Trafford remains inclusive for all” and that “action will be taken against any offensive behaviour” — a thinly veiled reference to the terrace chant that has caused so much controversy this week.
But before it could get going, the focus was already back on Rashford. He scored twice before 20 minutes were on the clock, and just like that, the songs switched to “just like Rashford, Manchester is red.”
His first was a neat finish after Michael Carrick’s pass and Jesse Lingard’s clever flick. The 19-year-old didn’t need any help for his second, however, taking one touch on the turn and smashing his shot in off the inside of the post from 20 yards. They were his fifth and sixth goals for club and country already this season. It took him until January to reach the same mark last term.
“I think everybody in attacking areas gave dynamic in the team and especially happiness,” Mourinho told Sky Sports afterward. “We look happy playing football in this moment, and that’s all I want.
“It was a professional performance. We played seriously. We gave no chances to the opponent. When you arrive at 3-0 at half-time, it’s time for us to slow down a bit, and also I think they were also fighting for a result that could give some dignity. They all want to play, they are all ready to play and use the minutes they are on the pitch to try to improve.”
A sparse crown at Old Trafford, the horns, the kids counting down with the clock and the iPhone light show in the second half made the game feel like a testimonial. Still, Rashford cannot afford to miss an opportunity, whatever the competition.
Until Ibrahimovic’s return, he is Lukaku’s backup. But he’s also locked in a battle with Anthony Martial to start the big games on the left wing, as Mourinho does not like starting Rashford and Martial together. On the same team sheet against Burton, it was only the 10th time it has happened in 72 games since Mourinho took over. With Lukaku and Mkhitaryan set to return against Southampton on Saturday, it is likely that one of them will be back on the bench at St. Mary’s.
Rashford’s performance here suggested he does not want it to be the odd man out.
The game was all but over by half-time, but Rashford was still chasing down Burton defenders in drizzling rain during the second half. A full sprint to charge down goalkeeper Connor Ripley got a round of applause from Mourinho; so did a bustling challenge on Tom Flanagan.
But it’s not just Rashford’s goals that are appreciated by his manager. Martial was grateful, too, running on to Rashford’s pass to score the fourth with an hour gone. Rashford got clattered by Tom Naylor in the process and came off shortly afterward, replaced by Scott McTominay. He was able to walk off and head straight down the tunnel alongside a physio, but such is his growing importance that Mourinho was not in the mood to take any chances.
United’s No.19 had already done enough to ensure a trip to Swansea in the next round and, more importantly, stay in Mourinho’s good books. Whatever you do, don’t tell Rashford that the Carabao Cup doesn’t matter.
Rob is ESPN FC’s Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.