Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho says he fully expected striker Marcus Rashford to endure a difficult season.
The 19-year-old enjoyed a sensational breakthrough campaign under Louis van Gaal in 2015-16 but has struggled to build on those impressive displays since Mourinho took charge at Old Trafford.
Rashford has scored just seven goals in all competitions, making only 10 starts in the Premier League, and the forward is a doubt to feature in the FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea on Monday after reportedly being struck down by illness.
Mourinho, however, says Rashford was always likely to find his second season more difficult and insists he will be a better player by next year.
“I knew that it would be a very difficult season for him, after the season of surprise,” Mourinho said.
“It was a season without pressure, a season where nobody demands, nobody knows him, he comes in and makes an impact, he feels free.
“He’s just a kid that’s enjoying his football. The second season was always going to be a difficult one, but I think the third season is going to be the good one again.
“The second season is the difficult one, it’s the pressure, it’s the people that know him, it’s the expectation. Is he a national team player, is he in the line-up for the club?”
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 11, 2017
United are said to be facing something of a striker crisis for Monday’s match, with Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney thought to have picked up injuries in training last week that will likely rule them out of the match.
With Rashford also a doubt and Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended, Mourinho could be forced into fielding a makeshift forward line involving one of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard or Juan Mata as a false nine, or possibly Marouane Fellaini as a striker.
However, speaking at the weekend, Mourinho would not rule out the prospect of Rashford starting in attack.
“He’s a good kid with a good mentality, and now we have three matches without Zlatan,” he said.
“So it’s him, Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney and let’s forget Zlatan. I never speak about the players who aren’t available, so Zlatan isn’t available and I’m not going to cry about it.
“Marcus is playing well. He played centre forward in some matches, but I’m not telling you that he’s going to start against Chelsea.
“But he’s having his opportunities, his minutes, he’s having lots of experiences, so I’m happy.
“I think the third season is one with more maturity. He can build on his experiences, so I’m sure the third season will be better than the second.”