Sport

Marcus Rashford brings up century as Manchester United beat West Ham

Marcus Rashford’s 100th Manchester United goal was a majestic header that propelled them to the points and came before a watching Gareth Southgate. If the England manager can be grateful to Erik ten Hag for revitalising the forward before the World Cup, the main story here concerned how the Dutchman continues to elevate United.

Rashford is the epitome of a footballer reborn, the lost boy of last season replaced by a super-confident forward whose seventh goal of this campaign is an apt emblem of the team’s upward trajectory. As a product of the renowned United academy, on the 85th anniversary of it supplying a player to every matchday squad – 4,163 since 1937 – the boy from Wythenshawe’s strike was perfect, too.

“It’s a completely different energy around the whole club [this season], and I feel more motivated,” Rashford said. “I’m in a better headspace – I struggled at times [last year], more mental things, not my performance but things off the pitch.”

Of the body-part that provided the goal, Rashford said: “I need to score more with my head – I just need to work on attacking the ball, getting in the right areas.”

His winner should share centre stage with Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martínez as the standout individual acts decorating a United display that featured some late and valiant defending. United bossed the contest from the first whistle until then, giving their fans a fine farewell to home Premier League action until after Christmas.

Rashford’s opening gambit was a hash of Diogo Dalot’s cross before Anthony Elanga, preferred to Jadon Sancho, did far better when drifting on to Eriksen’s defence-splitting aerial ball.

Cristiano Ronaldo was chosen in the league XI for the first time in three matches. Not making the cut, though, were Antony, with a leg injury, and Victor Lindelöf, whose illness may have allowed Harry Maguire’s selection alongside Martínez.

To test Lukasz Fabianski, Ronaldo peeled off the front, collected from Casemiro, and fired a 25-yard laser into the No 1’s midriff. Rashford’s best moments thus far came as he cut in from the left and pinged a shot off Tomas Soucek for a corner. At this, eventually, the No 10 met Dalot’s cross with a header Fabianski saved without moving.

West Ham were being suffocated as Ten Hag demands. A Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes combination claimed another corner from this, when Saïd Benrahma broke along West Ham’s left, the sight of Rashford thundering over to cover was precisely what the manager ordered.

United resembled a keep-ball unit, West Ham the counter-punching one, exemplified when a flailing Maguire missed Gianluca Scamacca and the Italian’s ball sent Benrahma skating in towards David de Gea and the visitors claimed a corner.

West Ham had come alive. Aaron Cresswell’s delivery was cleared by Casemiro and Declan Rice shrugged off Fernandes, showing the captain’s intent. Martínez offered a riposte, swarming over Flynn Downes and unloading a no-look pass that had Ronaldo slipping inside. But his intended tap to Rashford was poor, as Ten Hag’s touchline exasperation indicated.

United soon struck. On the right, Eriksen took Dalot’s throw-in, traded passes with Fernandes, and when the Dane hung up a superb ball Rashford knocked over Thilo Kehrer to head home for a second consecutive game: a particularly sweet way to bring up the century for his boyhood club in front of Southgate, especially as it allowed United to canter into the break.

Maguire, too, might have impressed the England manager via his shepherding of the muscular Scamacca at a West Ham foray – though a later Jarrod Bowen spin of the captain would be marked in the not‑so‑good column.

Scamacca saw Martínez block a shot and put his head into the rebound, where the Italian’s boot met temple. Free-kick to United, who had dropped down a gear but were able to shift back up smoothly, as when Casemiro purred forward and Ronaldo collected from Rashford only to miss at the near post. A further Ronaldo shot – deflected for a corner – Fernandes, Rashford and Shaw fashioning geometric angles down the left, and Scott McTominay’s glancing header illustrated who was in charge.

Time, at last for sustained West Ham pressure as Ronaldo cleared one corner, Eriksen another. The contest teetered in the balance. Martínez, perhaps sensing this, ensured a sliding tackle thwarted Michail Antonio, who had entered for Scamacca, as the closing phase had the visitors dropping several balls into United’s area. Dalot , excellent all afternoon, again had to deny Antonio who, seconds later, saw a piledriver tipped over by De Gea, the No 1 next turning Kurt Zouma’s header around his right post in a scintillating save.

At the other end Fred watched his header hit a post: this would have haunted the Brazilian if, in the frantic finale, De Gea had not somehow been able to fly to his left to save Rice’s 20-yard barnburner.

De Gea said: “Of the two saves, probably the header from Zouma was the best because it was almost certainly going in, but I am happy for all of them. Happy to make the saves and it’s a massive win.”