Of all Premier League players this season, only Erling Haaland scoring more than Marcus Rashford puts the progress the England striker has made into perspective as it allowed Manchester United to put one foot in the Carabao Cup final, which was the 18th of the season.
If Sunday’s defeat to Arsenal thwarted any optimistic dream of a Premier League victory, perhaps it served to fuel Erik ten Hag’s appetite for setting a more realistic goal for silverware in the trophies. Their starting 11 quickly outstripped Nottingham Forest in the first leg of this semi-final, and further goals from Wout Weghorst and Bruno Fernandes gave them a comfortable cushion before their return at Old Trafford next Wednesday.
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After Casemiro was suspended at Emirates, he took a stand and went to United’s midfield, but it was Rashford’s brilliant directness that helped set them apart from their rivals, who are now free to focus on maintaining their Premier League status.
Forest played well enough in the first half, but Fernandes’ third goal a minute later as he hit home with a low drive after being picked by Anthony Elanga provided a measure of the difference between these teams.
Rashford follows Haaland’s current 31-goal tally more than United are behind Arsenal in points in the league, but it’s the momentum that’s as encouraging as anything for Ten Hag as they try to end United’s six-year trophy stand. Rashford’s streak began against these opponents in this competition and then in the week surrounding Christmas. Helping to knock Burnley out of the Carabao Cup and then starting Forest’s previous 3-0 streak at Old Trafford showed a man who was apparently returning to the top of his game. How it started since then. The opening here was his 10th goal in 10 games since the World Cup and he can make the game look very simple.
There didn’t seem to be much danger when Lisandro Martínez found Fernandes near his autograph. His pass invited Rashford to set out from inside his court; Still, Forest didn’t seem too agitated. Maybe they should have. Rashford sprinted to Remo Freuler and Joe Worrall before taunting the ball with his left foot for a finish between Wayne Hennessey and his close post, then squatting between them.
Rashford became the first United player to score five goals in a League Cup campaign since Carlos Tevez scored six goals in 2008-09. “There are other players who play really well,” Ten Hag said. “But I’m really happy with Marcus.”
Forest almost went straight back, leaving Ten Hag a key spot to warn their players later on. Braving three-man lead even as United attacked, the hosts took advantage of this when Danilo sprinted away from Morgan Gibbs-White. He waited—that took a long time—for Sam Surridge to cross the side with his right foot neatly into the far bottom corner. VAR gave the striker an offside decision from the knee at Bournemouth on Saturday, who had just come off the equalizer. “It shouldn’t have been an offside,” said forest manager Steve Cooper. “There was time to fix it.”
This, however, encouraged Forest, and Gustavo Scarpa flanked a volley from just outside the penalty area when Gibbs-White’s corner was cleared by David de Gea. The United goalkeeper fled to safety. Brennan Johnson also escaped via his preferred right inner channel, but his first effort was rescued by De Gea from below, and the second blew up the near post.
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The game was becoming more and more edge-to-edge, a second goal seemed imminent, and Antony combined well with Weghorst, with Hennessey perfectly saving as a substitute for the ineligible and injured Dean Henderson.
However, United put the game to bed in the 45th minute. Starting off with a smooth ball from the corner to Casemiro, Antony took a delayed turn before the shot. Hennessey parried and Weghorst stabbed the ball into the net on the rebound for the first United goal.
The fact that Forest was brave or naive by leaving an offensive approach there helped make this game a spectacle. Christian Eriksen had a nice shot against the angle of the bar and post at one end, before stealing Gibbs-White Casemiro’s ball and making a left-footed shot from the other.
After receiving a blow to the ribs from Serge Aurier, Rashford’s night ended in front of the England-watching duo of Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland. He was replaced by Alejandro Garnacho. United has done enough already.