"What matters is not age but quality," José Mourinho said of Marcus Rashford; the 19-year-old has plenty of that, but can he turn training-ground toil into UEFA Europa League class as the semi-finals conclude?
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Having given Manchester United the edge in their UEFA Europa League semi-final with Celta Vigo, Marcus Rashford will look to continue his love affair with the competition when the two sides reunite on Thursday.
The 19-year-old struck the winner in Galicia last week when his superb free-kick – his first senior set-piece goal – gave United a 1-0 lead they will attempt to build on at Old Trafford. It was just reward for Rashford, and not merely because he had drawn the pick of three outstanding saves from Celta goalkeeper Sergio Álvarez during the first half.
"He's a 19-year-old kid but he's a 19-year-old kid in love with football," said manager José Mourinho after the first leg. "A kid that finishes a training session and stays half an hour more every day to take free-kicks and wait for his opportunity. He works, he works, he works. He's very mature, and let's forget the age because what matters is not age but quality."
- Manchester United v Celta background
- How the Europa League winners enter the Champions League
- Rashford on his United ascent
Those efforts appear to be paying off for the academy graduate in the final weeks of the campaign. Rashford mustered just three goals in all competitions between the end of September and early April, but with club top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimović out for the rest of the season due to a cruciate injury, he has again emerged as a front-line asset.
Fittingly, he has proved it most in the UEFA Europa League, having first announced his talent with two quick-fire goals on his debut against Midtjylland in this competition last term – when injuries also gave him his chance. Rashford now has three goals in his last five starts, and his strike at Balaídos came after he buried the winner in United's quarter-final tussle with Anderlecht.
"He's a young boy who's growing all the time and he scored a beautiful goal, an important one for us," added United goalkeeper Sergio Romero, with Rashford having moved the Red Devils closer to the Stockholm final on 24 May. "We see him all the time doing things like this in training."
Celta will need to keep the Manchester native quiet, in contrast, but the Liga side ought to be no pushovers as they pursue their own final dream, especially as three of their six wins in Europe this season have come on their travels – at Shakhtar Donetsk, Panathanaikos and Krasnodar. They also became the first team to win away at Real Madrid in 11 months this January.
"Those victories are good for our minds because we know it's possible," explained Celta John Guidetti, previously a forward with the Red Devils' arch-rivals Manchester City. "There's more to come from this team – we don't give up, we keep going.
"The same thing happened against Shakhtar and it was nothing. We win 2-0 at Old Trafford and we're through. It's difficult but the dream hasn't finished."