LONDON (Reuters) - Wayne Rooney’s international days are now behind him but Marcus Rashford offered ample evidence that he could follow in the footsteps of England’s record goalscorer with a match-winning display against Slovakia on Monday.
Almost 14 years to the day since a 17-year-old Rooney scored the first of his 53 England goals in a European Championship qualifier against Macedonia, 19-year-old Rashford bagged his first competitive strike for his country in stunning fashion.
Receiving the ball from England skipper Jordan Henderson 25 meters out there was only one thought in the Manchester United striker’s head as he looked up and lashed an unstoppable low shot past Slovakia keeper Martin Dubravka in the 59th minute.
It earned England a 2-1 victory that had looked unlikely when Rashford’s mistake allowed Slovakia to take a shock third-minute lead at Wembley in the Group F World Cup qualifier.
England now look set to qualify for next year’s finals in Russia and Rashford, who is also hoping to fill Rooney’s boots at Old Trafford after his return to boyhood club Everton, will surely be a major part of manager Gareth Southgate’s plans.
“He is so mature,” Southgate, whose decision to start Rashford rather than Raheem Sterling was vindicated, told reporters. “The start surprised me. But he is never in awe of the occasion. He doesn’t fear anything.
“He is still a work in progress as we saw at the beginning of the game. He is still getting stronger and his impact taking people on and getting us up the pitch is huge.
“It’s early for Marcus so we have to keep things in perspective. He is exciting.”
Livewire Rashford combined well with Harry Kane and Dele Alli on occasions and his pace and skill continually stretched Slovakia’s defense and allowed England to regain some control after a dreadful opening 35 minutes.
The striker, who marked his club debut in 2016 with two goals in a Europa League tie to become United’s youngest scorer in European competition and then scored two on his Premier League debut against Arsenal days later, was named man of the match on Monday and was cheered as he was replaced late on.
Apart from his winner he also set up Eric Dier’s 37th minute equalizer with a corner and forced Dubravka to make a great save before halftime.
“Marcus Rashford’s night? It wasn’t so good to begin with but it got better.” Dier said. “A fantastic show of character, after making a mistake, to score the winner which got us closer to the World Cup where hopefully he will shine.”
Rashford’s contribution glossed over another patchy England display that would have been punished by teams with more quality than Slovakia who now face a battle with Scotland and Slovenia to finish as runners-up and qualify for a playoff spot.
Southgate, however, preferred to focus on the way his side recovered their composure.
“We showed resilience and the tactical reaction on the pitch was good to see,” he said. “They are incredibly young and it’s a good experience to go through as long as you win because it starts to build some inner belief.
“I’m pleased we controlled the game in the second half. They showed maturity. We didn’t start well, they pressed us well and we weren’t able to cope with that. But we got that right and once we went 2-1 up we were difficult to play through.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris