The sight of Marcus Rashford sliding across the Parc des Princes turf dressed like a zebra after his stunning winner on Tuesday night was an incongruous one. If we’re doing fancy dress then right now Rashford would look more at home in a cape.
Having put Paris Saint-Germain to the sword on Tuesday night he was back to fighting against child food poverty on Wednesday morning and calling out Conservative MPs who had turned their replies off on social media. There is nothing the newly decorated MBE can’t turn his hand to at the moment.
Those critics who have called on him to focus on the football and leave the politics alone are being forced to admit that, actually, he can turn his hand to both, and pretty well too. Perhaps the focus on the campaign to feed the nation’s children is helping Rashford’s football, giving him a distraction from the day to day pressure of being a 22-year-old local lad at one of the world’s biggest clubs.
But then his form in front of goal isn’t a new development. Over the last two years Rashford has gone from streaky goalscorer to cold-eyed killer in front of goal. He’s on his way to entering world-class territory as an attacking player.
The evidence this season is impressive. There was his mesmeric run and finish at Brighton, his superb late show at Newcastle on Saturday and now the pure strike that secured United a deserved victory in Paris.
There was an element of Cristiano Ronaldo in the way Rashford engineered a yard of space to find an angle for a shot on his right foot and then struck the ball so purely, as there was with his stunning turn in the Brighton box during United’s Premier League victory on the south coast.
Comparisons with the five-times Ballon d’Or winner are nothing new. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer twice mentioned Rashford and Ronaldo in the same breath last year, after the former’s free-kick at Chelsea in the Carabao Cup and then after his performance in United’s win over Manchester City at the Etihad in December.
“It’s very easy to compare the two of them, yes,” Solskjaer said after that derby day win. “Both with skills, body shape, attitude, attributes – everything. The boy has every chance in the world to become a top, top player. Let’s hope he continues like this.”
Solskjaer has often used former United players as a point of reference for his current squad, perhaps unwisely given it only fuels the criticism that this is a football club living in the past. Mason Greenwood’s finishing has been compared to Robin van Persie, Scott McTominay is the modern-day Darren Fletcher, the list goes on.
Clearly comparing Rashford to Ronaldo right now is a stretch as well, but at comparable ages they are on a similar trajectory. Ronaldo’s breakthrough season in 2006/07, when he was 21, contained 23 goals, one more than Rashford struck last season, although Rashford managed that total in nine fewer games.
But what Ronaldo did was use his breakthrough season as a springboard, rather than something to aim for again and again. In 2007/08 Ronaldo scored 42 goals in 49 games and became one of the best players in the world. To truly make those comparisons stand up that is what Rashford must do.
He turns 23 in just over a week and if he has designs on being talked about as a future Ballon d’Or winner, or mentioned as the next generation to Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, he needs to be using 22 goal seasons as a starting point, not the end goal. On the evidence of four goals in seven games for United so far this season, there’s no reason Rashford can’t be aiming for 30 or more this season.
Rashford is becoming a reliable goalscorer, as well as a scorer of great goals. Only once since the start of last season has he gone five successive starts for United without scoring, and that was the final five games of last season, when he was clearly at breaking point as a result of the hectic post-restart schedule. There’s only been one run of four games in that period as well.
Previously Rashford’s touch in front of goal would leave him as easily as a tap being turned off. Not any longer. The signs are there that Rashford is turning into a world-class attacker, including in the way he shrugged off a couple of misses earlier against PSG to make no mistake late on. This is the season he needs to go from breakthrough campaign to breakout superstar.