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Zlat & Lukaku out: Why 2 kids can rescue Man Utd - and Mourinho

COMMENT: Zlat's out. Rom's gone. And Ash is staring at a three-match ban. Could it have worked out any BETTER for Jose Mourinho? No, really, what a way to enter 2018...

Now we do say Mourinho. But the opportunity is really all about his two young attackers: Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. Because here's their chance.

After that tired, insipid stalemate with Southampton, Manchester United need a lift. The players. The supporters. They need some inspiration. Some energy. Some bleedin' pace. Which is exactly what Rashford and Martial can supply if given the chance.

The United manager revealed after the Saints draw that Zlatan Ibrahimovic had suffered a setback in his recovery. The knee had flared up. Mourinho also confirmed at least two weeks would be needed for Romelu Lukaku to get back from his head knock. Basically, there's nowhere else for him to turn. It's now sheer necessity. He needs to rebuild his attack around Rashford and Martial. One. The other. Or preferably both. It can no longer be about playing the ball to the feet of Lukaku or Ibra.

Mourinho's gameplan will have to be ripped up. Well, at least altered. He'll need to play to his strikers' strengths - which will mean getting Rashford facing the opposition goal. Isolating Martial with his marker one-on-one. Pace. Aggression. Attack, attack, attack. Everything that was missing from Saturday's bore draw.

Andy Gray, the long time pundit and Everton great, had the quip of the night in the post-match. Citing Alex McCarthy's clean sheet on debut, Gray remarked that the man he replaced, the injured Fraser Forster, could still have played given the lack of punch from United's attack.

But this is the same team banging home four goals just about every game in the opening weeks of the season. Just a couple of months after winning the Europa League and getting the club back into the Champions League, Mourinho had his United top of the table, top of the goalscoring charts and looking like worldbeaters. His team were flying and Old Trafford was humming. His detractors today would do well to remind themselves of that.

It's form. Confidence. A slump. And in Mourinho's own words, for a team in transition, it can be difficult to snap. But this time, the jolt may not need to come from the manager. Nor even a locker room leader. It could be opportunity. The chance for Rashford and Martial to show Mourinho what they're all about - and from the start. This has to be the challenge from the manager. Both strikers, via confidants, have spoken publicly about their status and where they see themselves in the game. Now circumstances have offered them the opportunity to let their boots do the talking.

And if they prove themselves, both players should realise Mourinho will stand by them. He proved that last week against Burnley. 2-0 down at halftime, it wasn't Lukaku he hooked. He took off Ibrahimovic. At halftime! Has the Swede ever experienced anything similar? For Ibra's reputation. His status inside the locker room. His rivalry with Lukaku. It was a huge call by Mourinho. The manager backed his younger No9. How many of us saw that coming?

Just as it's worth remembering it's this season that Martial, after a 14 month absence, broke back into the France squad. It doesn't happen every week, but the 22 year-old has been playing the best football of his career. A testimony to Mourinho's management.

Those fearing for Rashford's progress, even the most ardent of Mourinho critics, have been silenced. And there's even been the welcome emergence of Scott McTominay. A player who the manager has declared is a genuine first teamer. Can we still say Mourinho has no interest bringing through the kids?

So Rashford and Martial can go into the game with Everton knowing this doesn't have to be a one-off. Play well. Keep playing well. And the manager will pick you.

Mourinho has changed. United have forced him to. That arrogance critics are so quick to highlight hasn't stretched to him breaking the 80 year-old streak of having an academy player in United's squad. The famous lip service he gave at Chelsea discussing the likes of Dominic Solanke and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, has transformed to Mourinho now actively demanding from Ricky Sbragia and Kieran McKenna to bring him more youth teamers to work with. It's significant that Axel Tuanzebe made the bench for Saturday's draw.

And for Mourinho, changing old habits is also influencing transfer policy. Infamous for blanking the winter transfer window, Mourinho has let it be known they'll be working the January market like never before. A meeting of head scouts was held at Carrington a month ago - with word reaching us that midfield was the focus for this current window.

Missing out on Ivan Perisic, the Inter Milan winger, still burns. Mourinho wants that versatile - experienced - wide player. As he does a central midfielder. The belief is the manager accepts Paul Pogba must play further forward. But he can only do so with the platform of two central midfielders behind him. He has one, Nemanja Matic, but needs to find another. Hence the talk of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic of Lazio and Napoli's Jorginho. After trying every which way to make it work. Mourinho and his coaching staff are coming around to the realisation that Pogba just isn't a box-to-box player.

Such are the hurdles, as Mourinho has warned from day one this season, facing a team in transition. But look beneath the surface. Beyond the current form slide. And you can see progress being made.

And that form blip could be snapped by two of the manager's success stories. Two players that no critic could see thriving under Mourinho. But he has been good for Rashford and Martial.

It's now time for them to return the favour.

Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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