That only Erling Haaland has scored more goals than Marcus Rashford among Premier League players in all competitions this season places the England striker’s progress in perspective as his 18th of the season allowed Manchester United to place one foot in the Carabao Cup final.
If Sunday’s defeat at Arsenal curtailed any optimistic dreaming of Premier League glory, perhaps it served to enhance Erik ten Hag’s appetite to land a more realistic target for silverware in the cups. His first XI made short shrift of Nottingham Forest in the first leg of this semi-final as further goals from Wout Weghorst and Bruno Fernandes gave them a comfortable cushion ahead of next Wednesday’s return at Old Trafford.
Casemiro, back after he was suspended at the Emirates, leant a poise and drive to United’s midfield but it was Rashford’s brilliant directness that helped set them apart from opponents who are now free to focus on retaining their Premier League status.
Forest played well enough in the first half, but Fernandes’s third goal a minute from time, when he rammed home a low drive after being picked out by Anthony Elanga, provided a measure of the difference between these teams.
Rashford trails Haaland’s current tally of 31 goals by more than United are behind Arsenal in points in the league but it is the momentum that is as encouraging as anything for Ten Hag as he seeks to end United’s six-year wait for a trophy. It was in this competition and then against these opponents, in the week surrounding Christmas, that Rashford’s hot streak began. Helping knock Burnley out of the Carabao Cup and then starting the previous 3-0 rout of Forest at Old Trafford showed a man seemingly returning to the top of his game. How he has kicked on since then. The opener here was his 10th goal in 10 games since the World Cup, and he can make the game look so simple.
There did not look to be much danger when Lisandro Martínez, near his own byline, found Fernandes. His pass invited Rashford to set off from inside his own half; still Forest did not look too perturbed. Perhaps they should have been. Rashford ran at Remo Freuler and Joe Worrall, then in between them, before teasing the ball on to his left foot to place a finish between Wayne Hennessey and his near post.
Rashford became the first United player to reach five goals in a League Cup campaign since Carlos Tevez managed six in 2008-09. “There are other players playing really well,” Ten Hag said. “But I’m really happy with Marcus.”
Forest almost hit straight back, leaving Ten Hag with a key point to warn his players over afterwards. Bravely leaving three men up even when United were attacking, the home side benefited when Danilo sent Morgan Gibbs-White scampering away. He waited – too long as it transpired – to pass wide for Sam Surridge to sidefoot neatly into the far bottom corner with his right foot. VAR adjudged the striker, fresh from his equaliser at Bournemouth on Saturday, offside by a knee. “There shouldn’t have been an offside,” Steve Cooper, the Forest manager, said. “There was time to get it right.”
This gave Forest heart, however, and when Gibbs-White’s corner was punched clear by David de Gea, Gustavo Scarpa sidefooted a volley from just outside the penalty area. The United goalkeeper parried away to safety. Brennan Johnson also got away down his favoured inside-right channel but his first effort was saved low down by De Gea and the second he blasted wide of the near post.
The game was becoming increasingly end to end, a second goal looking imminent, and when Antony combined well with Weghorst to get clear, Hennessey, deputising for the ineligible and injured Dean Henderson, saved superbly.
United did put the game to bed in the 45th minute however. Antony, having started the move with a neat ball around the corner to Casemiro, received a delayed return before shooting. Hennessey parried and Weghorst stabbed the ball high into the net on the rebound for his first United goal.
Whether Forest were being courageous or naive in leaving there attacking approach, it helped make this game a spectacle. Christian Eriksen wafted a beautiful shot against the angle of bar and post at one end before Gibbs-White stole possession off Casemiro and powered a left-footed shot over at the other.
After receiving a knock to the ribs from Serge Aurier, Rashford’s night, in front of the watching England coaching duo of Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland, was done. He was replaced by Alejandro Garnacho. United had already done enough.