Marcus Rashford has faced plenty of challenges from outside in his career so far and beaten most of them. But the prospect of a challenge from within the dressing room could prove his biggest yet and it is a battle that, to date, he is showing little sign of winning.
The emergence of Anthony Elanga as a significant challenger for the Manchester United striker’s place has never been in sharper focus than in the Wanda Metropolitano on Wednesday night.
Replacing Rashford after 75 minutes of joyless toil against Atletico Madrid, Elanga took one touch to do what neither United nor the 24-year-old had not managed in 80 minutes: get a shot on target.
The goal which followed dragged United back into the tie and kept their Champions League hopes alive.
Nemanja Matic, who has been around the block a few times including throughout Rashford’s entire United career, hailed Elanga afterwards as “the future of the club”.
It will have been a quote that when it reaches Rashford’s ears might have stung a touch given for a long time might have felt ownership of that label himself.
It was six years ago today that Rashford announced himself on the European stage with a breakthrough performance and two goals against FC Midtjylland.
It was a platform from which Rashford launched his career for club and country which until the last 18 months has seen constant improvement and recognition.
What Elanga’s emergence has done is not only create a credible challenger for his starting place at United but prompt more questions as to whether Rashford’s career has stalled.
And while there is mitigation given injury, surgery and the volume of football, goals have dried up – with just five this season – and it is hard not to feel a ceiling has been reached that needs smashing.
Interim boss Ralf Rangnick saw enough in Elanga to block a loan move for the Sweden U21 international shortly after his arrival at Old Trafford.
And he has not disappointed the German when given the opportunity in 13 out of Rangnick’s 16 games in charge.
Despite missing the penalty which saw United crash out of the FA Cup against Middlesbrough, goals against Leeds and on Wednesday after coming on as substitute have done little to shake his manager’s faith.
Rangnick made the observation that Elanga plays with a freedom that only the inexperienced can harness.
“He plays as though it is a dream come true. It is a joy and fun to watch him play,” said Rangnick. “I wish a few other players would take him as an example and as a role model.”
His words were not expressly about Rashford but the striker’s current form makes him a likely target.
Rashford is playing like a player who believes and knows he is better but cannot seem to show it. His frustration when things go wrong sometimes overwhelming the instinct to work back for his team.
All players go through challenges in their careers and Rashford is facing one now with a younger talent doing what he once did in nudging Memphis Depay towards the exit door.
United will have no plans to see Rashford follow him but they will be hoping Elanga has a galvanising effect on a player who, like him, was once the future of the club.
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