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Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford make their cases to start at Wembley

Following the shocking 1-0 loss at Old Trafford to bottom of the table West Bromwich Albion last weekend Jose Mourinho was strong in his criticism of his players. He stated players would be dropped for Manchester United’s midweek visit to Bournemouth, not just for rest prior to the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday, but due to poor performance with the chance they could lose their place.

That hasn’t always seemed to be the case this season though. Perhaps most hard done by have been Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Both have seen their playing time dwindle with Alexis Sanchez’s arrival from Arsenal in January.

The Chilean has understandably struggled to hit the ground running since moving to Old Trafford. Bright flashes like his second-half display in the Manchester derby have been more the exception than the norm.

Mourinho himself has said he believes United will see the best of Sanchez next season. This makes his constant inclusion of Sanchez on the left-wing, a position Martial and Rashford had been in healthy competition for prior to his arrival, all the more confusing.

Rashford’s last league start prior to the Bournemouth match was United’s 2-1 victory over Liverpool in which he scored both goals and started on the left. That was over a month ago and since then he’s largely been restricted to cameos off the bench.

Martial has been one of United’s most productive player chipping in with goals and assists steadily this season. Prior to Sanchez’s arrival he was in a real purple patch of form, scoring in three of four matches. He was initially moved to the right-wing to accommodate Sanchez, a position he’s never been fully comfortable in, before being dropped to the bench. His last start in the league came back at the end of February against Chelsea.

It was heartening to see Mourinho then follow through on his word and give both a start. Sanchez was dropped, as was Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian seems to be one of the few immune from the manager’s wrath and looks certain to start against Tottenham. Sanchez and Mata’s listless displays, however, put their places very much up for grabs and Martial and Rashford, as well as Jesse Lingard, made excellent cases for themselves.

Rashford was handed a rare opportunity to lead the line with Martial starting on the left. The manager was rewarded for his selection. Though neither got on the score sheet themselves there was a palpable difference from the team’s previous effort as United looked menacing every time they came forward.

After speaking at length about his lack of satisfaction with United’s overly complicated and lethargic play against Bournemouth, Mourinho must have been pleased with what he saw from the pair. Both Martial and Rashford were direct and decisive in their approach. They were also diligent in their defensive duties, always an expectation the Portuguese has of flair players.

Martial ran at Bournemouth’s defenders all evening. They struggled to cope with him as he turned and twisted defenders around constantly.

Rashford’s work rate was tremendous and he was a constant nuisance. He made clever runs in behind, drifted wide to find space and pressed the opposition from the front. He also later put in a notable shift on the right-wing when Lukaku came on in the second half.

Mourinho’s best teams have always thrived in attack with the right mix of pace, power and creativity — qualities his two young attacking talents possess in abundance — combined with an ingrained defensive discipline. It makes selecting at least one of the pair a necessity against Tottenham as Mourinho is likely to set United up to defend deep and attack on the counter.

Rashford and Martial are United’s only real threats who are effective at running at opposition defenses from wide areas. Sanchez, Mata, and Lingard prefer to link up and drift across the pitch. None of these provide the natural width Martial and Rashford do either.

The real test now will be to see if Mourinho stays true to his word. Martial and Rashford did their part to lift United after an insipid performance. Will he reward either or both of them with a start against Tottenham at Wembley after a positive display? They have certainly put themselves in contention. It’s now up to the manager to follow through and select them for their performances.

Written by Ashwin Ramnath

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