Rumours of the death of Manchester United's season proved to have been overstated, as Marcus Rashford's winner saw the Red Devils overturn Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, reducing the gap between the sides to a point.
With that, the Red Devils are firmly back in the race for a top-four finish.
Anthony Martial @AnthonyMartial
Great performance of the team today and great goal Marcus 💪🏽 https://t.co/gV3LLByOt03/20/2016, 8:07:10 PM
There is a long way to go for United to overhaul their rivals. While it was an exciting moment for both Rashford and United, neither should assume success is guaranteed.
United are still sixth in the table, with West Ham United's superior goal difference ensuring they held onto fifth place. There is only one goal between those two sides, United on plus-11 and West Ham on plus-12.
City's one-point advantage is effectively two because their plus-20 goal difference gives them a significant cushion on Louis van Gaal's men.
Sky Football ⚽️ @SkyFootball
"It was a long time ago that #MUFC has won here." LVG delighted. More here: https://t.co/0pDuP6NwOQ https://t.co/nR2HOWfuqK3/20/2016, 6:58:09 PM
But United at least gained ground on their rivals. And Van Gaal was not short of praise for match-winner Rashford, telling Sky Sports' Geoff Shreeves: "He is a real striker, and that's why I let him stay in that position because he can make goals. But he is also an attacking point and runs the channels. I like him very much."
Then came the key caveat, with the manager adding: "But he is 18 years old, so we have to wait and see how consistent he is."
His coolness under pressure and the manner in which he has adapted to top-flight football are indicators that Rashford could be a special player with a bright future—something that has been considered a possibility for a while. When he was still in charge of the youngster, former United under-18s manager Paul McGuiness said, per the Mirror: "[Rashford] put some exciting parts of games together and we saw some exciting things."
Given the 18 year-old scored a brace in each of his first two senior games for the club, everyone who follows United has seen some exciting things from him.
Sky Football ⚽️ @SkyFootball
We take a detailed look at Marcus Rashford's match-winning display in the Manchester derby https://t.co/PNYK8shVFV https://t.co/vXNB6KWqjY3/20/2016, 9:55:05 PM
And just as it is important for the youngster to keep his feet on the ground and do the necessary work to ensure he can live up to his obvious potential, it is also important for United to keep their feet on the ground after Sunday's win, which means their season could still count for something.
After all, there is very little about Van Gaal's time in charge so far to suggest the Red Devils are capable of maintaining a high level of form between now and the end of the season. The manager may have drawn attention to Rashford's need for consistency, but in truth, that is something sorely lacking in the team as a whole.
While United were fairly resolute in the Manchester derby and certainly had opportunities of their own, they were fortunate to catch City in such profligate mood. The Citizens had 26 shots at David De Gea's goal, but the stopper had to make just three saves to record his clean sheet. This was in part due to some fine defending—United blocked seven shots—but City hit 16 efforts off target and one off the woodwork.
By contrast, United had just five shots, though they were unlucky not to be awarded a penalty following Martin Demichelis' physical challenge on Rashford in first-half stoppage time.
It could have been a very different story if Sergio Aguero's 65th-minute header sneaked inside the post it struck. Aguero also had an opportunity when a ball broke to him at the back post. Pretty much unmarked, he directed his header back across goal rather than aiming for the target.
On such fine margins, games—and indeed seasons—turn.
United have eight league games left to end the season on something of a high—albeit a fourth-place finish may still have been considered below par before the season began.
As things stand, that means three of their last eight games are against teams above them. The rest are against teams in the bottom half of the table—outfits that have tripped Van Gaal's side up on several occasions this season.
It is too soon for Rashford to be hailed as the future of United's attack, but there is certainly plenty of promise. It is also too soon to assert that United's season will be saved following the derby win.
There has been too little consistency to be certain of a positive outcome. Hope has been reignited, but whether it comes to fruition remains in the balance. For Rashford and United, there is a long way left to go.
All advanced statistics per WhoScored.com.
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