Football is full of hate; it’s a beautiful thing. Because the game is emotive, partisan, remote and insignificant, it is fantastically easy to be fantastically petty, accumulating enemies with abandon. Just not Marcus Rashford; no one can hate Marcus Rashford.
Partly, he’s not had very long to do very much very wrong – but there’s more to it than that. Sure, homegrown player making it is special and a homegrown centre-forward making it is even more special – but there’s more to it than that. And he’s exhilarating to watch, an unusually rounded mix of pace and movement, flicks and tricks, imagination and intuition – but still, there’s more to it than that.
The thing is – and please forgive me for what’s coming next, I know it sounds appalling, but we both know it’s true so what can we do? Thus, the thing is, he simply exudes life-force, melding mischief and joy to reveal innocence and wisdom, the absolute definition of youthfulness. This is not only catching, moving and overwhelming, but also entirely unthreatening. Not being him isn’t awful; there being a him is wonderful. To watch Marcus Rashford is to feel better about the world because if he’s in it, it can’t be that bad; he seems too good to be true, except look, there he is!
So it was not altogether surprising when he seized this tie just as United were releasing it; as usual, they had dominated, failed to score, and invited their opponents into the game. In 46 starts for the club, Rashford has scored twice against Arsenal, scored a brilliant winner in his first derby match, scored a brilliant opener in an FA Cup quarter-final replay, been man of the match in the FA Cup final, scored the opener against Chelsea in the process of inspiring the first brilliant performance of the Mourinho era, scored a brilliant winner in extra-time of the Europa League quarter-final, and now scored a brilliant winner in the semi-final. It is f*****g ridiculous.
United came into this tie with no excuse whatsoever for not winning it; Vigo can play, but they are not elite nor anything close, and have no history of competing at this level. Outside the ground, there was a sense that something vital and unique was taking place, the roads a hubbub of horns, flares and skunk, but inside a vertiginously steep and unnecessarily oval bowl, the atmosphere was muted.
So the stadium DJ inflicted all four minutes 52 seconds of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, and that was how Celta played. Visibly smaller and slower, they could not get close to United in the first half, even though parts of the pitch were soaked enough to be kicking up water.
In that period, Paul Pogba was outstanding, literally head and shoulders above the rest like a Dad playing with his kids and taking it seriously. But it was not simply his physicality that stood out, awesome though it is, rather the subtlety with which he accepted, passed and ran with the ball.
He focused United’s attack principally down their left side where Rashford was also effective, and between them the two were responsible for their team’s three outstanding moments of the first half. First, Sergio Alvarez made a fine stop to keep out Rashford’s curler; then Pogba sent Henrikh Mkhitaryan through, only for his rushed finish was kicked away; and finally, Rashford’s clever flick gave Jesse Lingard a chance, but another tame effort to follow.
At half-time, it seemed impossible that Celta would not improve thereafter; by way of inspiration, the DJ played the A-Team theme tune. And though there was little sign of a plan coming together they did compete harder in midfield, also restricting time and space in wide areas.
But then on 66 minutes Rashford attacked Hugo Mallo yet again, who desperately, exhaustedly blocked him to concede a free-kick 25 yards from goal. A shot did not look on – it was on a left-footer’s natural side and even then, looked too far over for it to be worth Daley Blind shooting. So he ran over it, and because there was no chance of a right-footer having a go, Alvarez took a step the wrong way. Whereupon Rashford wiped his instep across the ball to paste an outswinger over the wall, then paused, checked it was as perfect as it felt, and watched it rip into the far corner, reacting like someone for whom this kind of bizarre tomfoolery is just what happens.
And that was more or less it. Celta mustered a couple of half chances and small pockets of pressure; Chris Smalling took a brief turn as a deep-lying midfield playmaker; and surely even United can’t blow the tie from here.