Manchester United booked their place in the Europa League semifinal with victory over Anderlecht, a game in which fortunes contrasted for a pair of strikers at opposite ends of their careers.
By resting 35-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Sunday’s victory over Chelsea, Jose Mourinho made it clear where his priorities lie for the remainder of the season. He wants to win the Europa League to guarantee a place in next year’s Champions League and likely sees victory in the competition as a likelier way of getting there than through a top-four finish in the Premier League.
Thursday, though, was a disastrous evening for Ibrahimovic. After playing badly and missing chances that could have wrapped up a United win, he suffered a long-term knee injury at the end of normal time. Though he shrugged off a stretcher, instead hobbling off the pitch, his season is seemingly over.
All season, Ibrahimovic has had one eye on the Europa League final in his native Sweden. The striker had joked that, if United reached the final and he scored, plans would have to be made for a second statue in his honour outside the Friends Arena in Stockholm.
While United fans will be disappointed by the news of his absence, especially while doubts over his future at the club remain, it’s unlikely that many will be upset that Mourinho will now have to rely upon Marcus Rashford to lead the line.
The 19-year-old has scored three goals in his last four games, meaning he is going into Sunday’s Premier League game against Burnley with plenty of confidence.
More than his goal tally, Rashford’s all-round performances have seen him show fantastic form over recent weeks. His pace absolutely terrifies defenders; David Luiz struggled to keep up with him last weekend, so Burnley centre-back — and lifelong United fan — Michael Keane knows he’ll have his hands full if Rashford starts at Turf Moor.
Opposition players know exactly what he is going to do when he gets the ball — try to run past them — yet, even with the advantage of possessing this information, they still have a hard time stopping him.
It would be unfair to reduce Rashford’s strengths to pace and goals, though. He’s been on dead-ball duty recently and while he’s failed to clear the first man on occasion, he’s largely helped United look more dangerous from set pieces. He also has fantastically skillful feet, is able to shift the ball at speed and unafraid to try tricks and new things.
In the absence of Ibrahimovic, Mourinho may be tempted to play Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard behind Rashford against Burnley. The prospect of such speed in attack will be mouthwatering for fans.
Defensively, United are struggling. Marcos Rojo is the latest central defender to find himself ruled out with injury, meaning that Eric Bailly, who may start to feel the tiredness having played 90 minutes in all six of United’s games this month, is almost the last man standing.
On a more positive note, Luke Shaw put in a bright performance against Anderlecht, while Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young are also options alongside Antonio Valencia for the full-back positions.
United may be in a good position in the Europa League, but a finish in the top four isn’t beyond them and Mourinho won’t want to put all of his eggs in one basket where Champions League qualification is concerned. Four points behind Manchester City with a game in hand, United travel to their great rivals next Thursday. Liverpool, meanwhile, are six points ahead but have played two games more.
With tricky fixtures remaining, including games at Arsenal and Tottenham, it’s easy to see why United aren’t favourites to do finish in the top four, but it’s not an impossibility, so Mourinho will be looking for a win at Turf Moor.
It should be an evenly-matched affair. While United boast the best points-per-game record on the road this season, Burnley’s home form is strong, with Sean Dyche’s men picking up more points at home than either Manchester club.
Burnley have had over a week to prepare for the game, while United have just two days’ rest. But there is hope the tide is turning for Mourinho. Following the important win over Chelsea, it is to be hopes that momentum will counterbalance any tiredness the players are feeling.
Scott is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.