MANCHESTER, England — Manchester United cruised to a comfortable 3-0 win over Nottingham Forest in their first Premier League fixture following the World Cup break.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial both scored within three minutes during the first half to put United in control before Fred came off the bench to add a third late on.
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Erik ten Hag’s team remains fifth in the table, but sits just a point adrift of the top four with one game to play in 2022 against Wolves at Molineux on Saturday.
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1. Ten Hag has brought back hope ahead of 2023
Erik ten Hag wrote in his program notes that “fifth is the right position for us” after United’s start to the season but there has been enough encouragement that they could be much higher by May. It’s now one defeat in 14 in all competitions with victory over Forest closing the gap with Tottenham Hotspur in fourth to just one point.
Finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League is the priority, but there is also silverware to play for in the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and Europa League. There have been setbacks — heavy defeats to Brentford and Manchester City stand-out — but there can be little doubt that things look a lot more positive than this time last year.
Goals might still be a problem if Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t replaced in January and Ten Hag cannot find a way of getting Jadon Sancho back to his best, but even with obvious deficiencies in the squad, there has been plenty of progress. For the first time in a while, United fans are looking forward to a new year with optimism and most of that is down to Ten Hag. There is hope that, under the new manager, the new year will be a successful one.
2. Rashford and Martial soften the blow of Gakpo’s move
Just 24 hours after finding out that Cody Gakpo will join Liverpool in January rather than move to Old Trafford, Ten Hag needed his players to show there are already goals in the team and Rashford didn’t let him down. The Dutchman has challenged Rashford to reach 20 league goals this season and he got his fifth against Forest from a clever corner rolled into the penalty area by Christian Eriksen.
United are still looking for a striker to replace Ronaldo, but most of the responsibility in front of goal between now and May will fall on Rashford and Martial, who also found the net against Forest thanks to a Rashford assist. Both Rashford and Martial have had seasons when they’ve reached 20-plus goals in all competitions and it’s likely they will have to put up similar numbers before the end of the campaign if United are going to finish in the top four and win a trophy .
Martial’s first job is to stay fit — his start against Forest was just his third in the Premier League this season — while Rashford has to make the most of a run of form which has seen him score eight goals in 13 games for club and country since Oct. 27.
3. Forest need to rediscover pre-World Cup momentum
Premier League survival won’t be decided by away games at the top six, but Forest will want to ensure defeat at Old Trafford doesn’t kick-start a losing run. After going eight games without a win between the end of August and mid-October, they beat Liverpool and Crystal Palace in the month before the World Cup break to move off the bottom of the table and now domestic football is back, it is vital they keep picking up points.
Steve Cooper’s side have got a tough game against Chelsea on New Year’s Day but then play bottom side Southampton three days later in what will be a crucial fixture at the foot of the table. It looked like Forest had turned a corner before the break after a difficult start to life back in the Premier League and, at the very least, they have given themselves a chance of staying up. At one point this season that looked hard to imagine.
After conceding two goals in three minutes against United, they never really threatened to get a result at Old Trafford but there were enough positive moments, especially in the second half, to suggest Forest might be back here again next year.
Manchester United: David De Gea 7, Aaron Wan-Bissaka 7, Tyrell Malacia 6, Raphael Varane 7, Luke Shaw 7, Casemiro 8, Christian Eriksen 7, Bruno Fernandes 7, Antony 6, Marcus Rashford 8, Anthony Martial 7.
Subs: Alejandro Garnacho 7, Donny van de Beek 6, Harry Maguire 6, Fred 7, Anthony Elanga 6.
Nottingham Forest: Wayne Hennessey 5, Serge Aurier 5, Renan Lodi 6, Joe Worrall 6, Willy Boly 5, Ryan Yates 6, Remo Freuler 5, Orel Mangala 6, Jesse Lingard 6, Brennan Johnson 5, Taiwo Awoniyi 5.
Subs: Lewis O’Brien 6, Harry Toffolo 6, Sam Surridge 6, Emmanuel Dennis 6, Neco Williams 6.
Best and worst performers
Best performer: Marcus Rashford, Manchester United.
Scored for the second game in a row and set up Martial.
Worst performer: Wayne Hennessey, Nottingham Forest.
Starting in place of United loanee Dean Henderson, he let Martial’s tame shot squirm through his hands.
Highlights and notable moments
Rashford’s goal off the corner kick in the first half — looked as good in a live match as it would have in training.
Marcus Rashford is continuing his World Cup scoring form in his return to the Premier League. 🔥
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) December 27, 2022
After the match: What the players/managers said
Marcus Rashford on his goal, to Amazon Prime: “We didn’t practice it too much but it was one from the training ground. We’ve seen they’re very man-to-man and if you can shift them to the back half of the goal then you can get a good chance on goal.”
Erik ten Hag on Rashford’s form, to NBC Sports: “We are happy with him. He is a continually a threat for every defense. He has a really big heart and a magnificent shot. He’s also good in assist and in the counter attack he was incredibly good. He played a really strong match and has had a good season.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
– Marcus Rashford has scored in five straight games at Old Trafford for the first time in his career. With five Premier League goals this season, he has more than he had in all of 2021-22.
– With the 64th career Premier League goal, Rashford ties Eric Cantona for 8th-most in Manchester United’s history. He also passes Gabriel Jesus (63) for 3rd most Premier League goals by players 25 years or younger since the start of 2016. In that span, only Harry Kane (90) and Raheem Sterling (66) have more.
Manchester United: A visit to 17th-place Wolverhampton Wanderers on New Year’s Eve.
Nottingham Forest: Ringing in 2023 by hosting Chelsea.