“Rashford and little else,” was the damning verdict from the respected Spanish journalist in the Old Trafford press box after 20 minutes of Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final between Manchester United and Barcelona when the Catalans were so dominant. The return is in Camp Nou on Tuesday, with favourites Barca holding a 1-0 lead and United hoping to do what they did against the odds at Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.
The assessment wasn’t entirely fair either. United improved after a poor start, other players performed well and Rashford, who wasn’t 100 per cent fit, posed danger but didn’t manage a shot on target. Nor did any of his teammates.
Rashford is respected in Catalonia and Barca want to sign him. The Catalans have done their due diligence, they’ve scouted him heavily and they like what they see.
They see the striker as just what they’re looking for – a young, fast and hugely talented footballer who can play in any of the front three positions. They also feel he can improve with better players around him at a club absolutely committed to attacking football.
Barca will invest heavily in the best young talent – see the fees for Ousame Dembele or the incoming Frenkie de Jong and, they hope, Matthias de Ligt. If they’re a success then they can stay or be sold for profit if they really insist on leaving, as Neymar did.
Barca’s interest in Rashford isn’t a media construct planted by an agent because his client wants more money, but genuine. They know that while Luis Suarez, one of football’s great number nines of recent times, is enjoying a purple patch in the league, he’s not scored an away goal in European competition since 2015. He’s not scored one at home this season either and only managed one in ten European home games last term.
He’s also 32. Barca can be ruthless about letting players go, especially if they think they can cash in before their resale value drops off. Suarez is happy, settled and effective, but when the club signed Kevin Prince Boateng in January it was to be a back-up for Suarez.
Barca first identified Antoine Griezmann as the player they wanted up front. They were led to believe that the Frenchman wanted to join their club and his parents had met with Barcelona’s president, but then he changed his mind.
That damaged Griezmann’s stock and he was booed at Camp Nou last week. He’s also 28.
Hence Rashford. Getting either player will be extremely complicated. United have zero intention of selling their best young striker, the one Alex Ferguson was telling people, “we think he’s got a real chance, this boy”, long before he established himself.
United don’t need the money and unlike in 1986 when Barcelona could offer United’s star striker Mark Hughes nine times the money he was on at Old Trafford, the financial gap has closed to nothing. It’s the team with the highest wage bill in world football against the second highest. Rashford would have to push to leave – though if you’re going to have a suitor, Barca isn’t a bad one.
United also claim they can compete with any club for money. They see themselves as being top of the transfer tree. In 2009, Cristiano Ronaldo was the first player the club lost against their will since Hughes in 1986. They haven’t lost one since.
Rashford, 21, is out of contract in 2020 and United believe that he will renew. He’ll get a huge wage increase to reflect his importance to the team. He’s now United’s main striker, but he’s not prolific. Twenty players have scored more than his 10 Premier League goals this season, but he has 45 goals in 163 games for a less than spectacular United side, games where he’s often been played away from the central striking role. Being played out of his favoured position began to irritate him and had Barca made their intentions clear towards the end of Jose Mourinho’s time at the club they would have found an unhappy and potentially receptive player, but things have improved.
Rashford has replaced Romelu Lukaku as the main striker, but while he started by scoring in six of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first eight league games, he’s managed only one goal in the last six. He did, however, have the immense courage to stand up and take a 93rd minute penalty in Paris and put the ball past Gianluigi Buffon while all the time ignoring PSG’s players who were trying to put him off. That goal was the tie’s greatest single moment which sent United through – to great surprise – for the games against Barca.
On Tuesday, Rashford will play in front of the biggest crowd of his competitive career, close to 100,000. He was slightly off tune with his tweet after Saturday’s 2-1 win against West Ham when he said “three points is all that matters”. When you’re at United, decent performances matter too rather than a second struggle at home against a lower team. But an aggregate win in Camp Nou on Tuesday, whatever the performance, would be the greatest accomplishment of the season for United. And the Catalans know who their greatest threat is.