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It was around this time last year that Marcus Rashford was scoring the winner in his first Manchester derby and establishing himself as the main striker at Manchester United.
Having already scored twice on both his United debut and his first start in the Premier League, Rashford _ a shy, 18-year-old local lad plucked from the under-19s to solve an injury crisis _ would soon be an FA Cup winner and earning an England call-up for the European Championship. He was widely regarded as a future star of English soccer.
Fast forward 12 months and Rashford has drifted out of the spotlight, and is mainly found either on United’s substitutes’ bench or pushed out to the wing to accommodate the new striker sensation at Old Trafford, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Until now.
With Ibrahimovic starting a three-match domestic suspension, Rashford is set to be back leading the line for United _ and his first game doesn’t get much bigger: An FA Cup quarterfinal at Chelsea on Monday.
It’s a chance for Rashford to remind manager Jose Mourinho that he is a striker, first and foremost, and that he can still be the future at United when 35-year-old Ibrahimovic chooses to leave the club, which could even be as early as this summer.
“I want to become the ultimate center forward,” he said.
Rashford was thrust from the academy and started 18 of United’s final 19 games last season, scoring eight goals. But he has only started 10 out of 26 league games this season, and just one as the striker. He has seven goals in all competitions, only three of which have come in 2017.
Rashford has expressed his frustration at not getting as many starts this season but understands that Mourinho has a wealth of attacking talent at his disposal. Given the season Ibrahimovic is having in his first year, Rashford cannot expect to retain his place when the Swedish striker returns.
But Rashford will become a firm favorite of Mourinho’s if he can score the winner on Monday at the Portuguese coach’s former club and then help United win upcoming league games against Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion in its push for Champions League qualification.
Rashford also needs to stay on the radar of England coach Gareth Southgate ahead of next year’s World Cup in Russia.
He won’t find it easy against Chelsea, though. The London club is the Premier League leader and has the joint-best defense in the league with Tottenham. If Rashford does get behind center backs Cesar Azpilicueta or Gary Cahill, he’ll have sweeper David Luiz _ enjoying an excellent season back at Stamford Bridge _ to beat.
Chelsea’s only loss at Stamford Bridge this season came in September against Liverpool, when the team was a few weeks away from switching to a three-man defense _ a tactical change that has reignited its season.
Rashford has proved himself the man for the big occasion _ he even scored three minutes into his England debut in May _ so expect him to make an impact in the standout match of the last eight.
Here’s what else to look out for on a weekend when there is action in the FA Cup and the Premier League:
If Chelsea-Man United is the heavyweight quarterfinal match, then perhaps the most intriguing is the visit of non-league team Lincoln to Premier League giant Arsenal on Saturday.
Lincoln has already beaten top-flight team Burnley as well as two second-tier teams in Ipswich and Brighton on its stunning FA Cup run, and is the first non-league team in 103 years to reach this stage of the world’s oldest club knockout competition.
It will come up against an Arsenal side reeling from its humiliating exit from the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich, which clinched a 10-2 win on aggregate with a 5-1 win at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday. The game could again see fan protests against Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s long-serving manager.
The other quarterfinal matches are Middlesbrough at home to Manchester City on Saturday and Tottenham hosting third-tier Millwall on Sunday.
Liverpool is the only team in the top six in league action this weekend, with Juergen Klopp’s side hosting Burnley on Sunday.
Liverpool has had problems against the league’s supposedly weaker teams, either through complacency or a failure to break down packed defenses. The Reds’ five league defeats this season have come against teams in the bottom half.
In other games on Saturday, it’s Bournemouth vs. West Ham, Everton vs. West Brom; and Hull vs. Swansea.