MANCHESTER, England -- Three thoughts from Manchester United's 5-1 triumph over FC Midtjylland on Thursday to earn a place in the Europa League last 16.
1. Rashford fires United through
Manchester United have a new hero, while manager Louis van Gaal rides on. Marcus Rashford, a name previously familiar only to the aficionado of United's youth teams, grabbed a pair of second-half goals that saved his manager from the deep embarrassment of exiting the Europa League at the hands of minnows. The knives that were being sharpened for the Dutch manager can be placed back in the drawer -- for now.
A hodgepodge selection of kids and the remainder of a senior squad positively riddled with injuries pulled off the comeback in such entertaining fashion that Old Trafford cooed in excitement as Rashford and the excellent Memphis Depay thrilled in a fashion that has been in short supply during the past two seasons under Van Gaal's tutelage. The eventual scoreline did not flatter United's second-half display one little bit.
Against an opponent with a budget a fraction of United's, the odds had initially appeared stacked against Van Gaal's team. When sole fit striker Anthony Martial pulled up lame in the warmup, injury struck once more; David De Gea withdrew from last week's first leg at a similarly late juncture. Rashford, a local player who turned 18 this season, was given just 10 minutes' notice that he would be making his first-team debut as lone striker. With an early run and shot that forced Midtjylland goalkeeper Mikkel Andersen into a full-length save, he swiftly won over home fans otherwise failing to warm to the occasion.
Up in the triple-decker Sir Alex Ferguson stand, there were plenty of empty seats. Even at reduced prices, the low cachet of the Europa League and the usual lack of entertainment value recently offered by the team meant this would be no sell-out. The air would not crackle with the atmosphere of floodlit European fixtures in happier times of United's history until Rashford made his intervention.
This threatened to be an all-time low when early flashes from Depay and Jesse Lingard gave way to a collective lapse in concentration that allowed Pione Sisto to score a solo goal on 28 minutes. Nine minutes later, Van Gaal's blushes appeared on the way to being saved when Nikolay Bodurov put a Depay cross into the own net. The embarrassment would instead be Juan Mata's when his tame penalty kick, awarded for a foul on Ander Herrera, was saved by Andersen just before halftime.
On the other side of halftime, Herrera shared that shame with his Spanish compatriot when he missed a free header after Depay's cross found him in open space. It would take Rashford, a young man living up to his big moment, to haul United back to level pegging in the tie at 3-3, by thrashing home in the 63rd minute a Mata cross from the left, a trick he repeated for his second, converting a Guillermo Varela cross from the opposite flank in the 75th.
When Herrera converted an 88th minute penalty, after a Kian Hansen handball and Depay grabbed a deserved strike a minute later, with Andre Romer having been dismissed for a second bookable offence when fouling the Dutch winger, progress was secured. Young Rashford could leave the field to a standing ovation from a stadium full of new admirers.
2. United, but not as we know it
A central defensive partnership of Michael Carrick and Daley Blind had been forced by a shoulder injury suffered by Chris Smalling, making it 13 first-team absentees from Van Gaal's squad even before Martial succumbed to his knock.
On a night when United were expected to dominate possession, having a spare man who could bring the ball out seemed like a sensible tactic. The two of them paired together ranked as one of the more unorthodox selections in Van Gaal's time as United manager, which is saying something, considering his habit of employing players in unfamiliar positions. Things did not look promising when Sisto's goal left Blind bamboozled.
A glance at the bench suggested Van Gaal's reasoning, with only 17-year-old Regan Poole, who eventually played the last minute of added time, and Paddy McNair available, the latter no longer the breakthrough star he was in Van Gaal's early months in charge. With so many injuries, there was little suggestion that United were resting players for Sunday's Premier League showdown with Arsenal, even if Smalling and De Gea are both expected to return against the Gunners.
The prognosis on Martial is more of a mystery, and the Frenchman could be sorely missed on Sunday, considering that Wayne Rooney's return is not expected until late March at the earliest. Martial's absence made United's starting XI considerably lower in talent than the outfit that beat Shrewsbury 3-0 in the FA Cup on Monday, though a couple of the young players offered themselves up as potential mainstays of the future.
Aside from Rashford, Varela at right-back showed off overlapping qualities in being United's prime attacking weapon of the first half, while Joe Riley mirrored him on the other side, the teenager having only made his debut at Shrewsbury on Monday.
3. Danes' dreamland denied
When Midtjylland defender Tim Sparv tweeted a picture of a parked bus on Wednesday, he was jokingly referring to the tactics that his team were expected to try at Old Trafford. Even if the Danish champs lost the return, they could still bask in the glory of last week's 2-1 defeat of the self-styled richest club in football.
If United's trip to Jutland had produced one of the most shameful nights in a pockmarked recent history, it was a Danish dreamland, and the travelling fans in their corner of the East Stand were determined to enjoy their evening. And with opposition shorn of so much talent, the tie seemed there for the taking. There would be no asterisk against United's name to show they were understrength if coach Jess Thorup's team pulled off the impossible.
As expected, they sat deep in droves, though a high level of organisation did not ease their nerves. There were some anxious touches in defence, but when United allowed them some possession, they seized their chance. United's defending was awful, and Sisto, just as in the first leg, carved through to score, taking advantage of Morgan Schneiderlin failing to close down space. Once again United's piecemeal defence seemed to be refusing to commit to anything like a proper challenge.
Bodurov's own-goal pricked the bubble, only for Andersen's penalty save to blow it back up again. At halftime, Paul Onuachu, Midtjylland's other scorer last week, came on to add height and power to the equation, but his teammates could never clear their lines, and eventually succumbed.