MANCHESTER, England -- Manchester United have been so inconsistent this season that a routine home win against Norwich City is not enough to give supporters hope for the future.
But if they are witnessing the season that Marcus Rashford gives notice of the player he might become, then that is genuine reason for optimism. Still only 22, he made his 200th United appearance in the 4-0 victory on Saturday and marked it with his 18th and 19th goals of the campaign.
The first was the type manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants him to score more of. The Norwegian would call it a goal scorer's goal, timing his run towards the back post to flick his finish past Tim Krul. The second was a penalty, smartly tucked away after his pass on the left had led to Krul bringing down Brandon Williams. That's 18 in his past 23 games for club and country.
Captain for the first time against Manchester City on Tuesday, he scored then, too, and afterwards he showed signs of his growing maturity by stopping to speak to media in an attempt to explain to fans what exactly had gone wrong during a humiliating 3-1 defeat. It would have been far easier to stay quiet and hide away, but he chose to speak on behalf of the team. Plenty of others would have disappeared into the night without taking responsibility.
It is Rashford's most productive season in senior football, and we're only in January. His best goal return of 13 -- reached in 2018 and 2019 -- has already been blitzed. He does not set goal-scoring targets, but he has every chance of reaching 30 if he stays fit.
It is vital to Solskjaer that he does.
It said everything about how important he is to this young team that moments after Anthony Martial had made it 3-0 against Norwich, Rashford was quickly whipped off and sent down the tunnel. There was still more than half an hour to play, and he had the chance of scoring a first United hat trick, but Solskjaer cannot take any risks.
"I don't know," Solskjaer said afterwards when asked whether Rashford will be called on again when Wolves visit for the FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday. "He has played many, many games, so I might have to look how I can manage it."
There are too many games to play, too much at stake and Rashford's goals are too important.
Before lining up against Norwich, he had been involved in 16 goals in the Premier League this season, equalling his previous best tally set last term. Without his 12 league goals, United would have amassed nine fewer points and would have kicked off against Norwich 13th in the table, just five points above the relegation zone. Instead, the top four is still a possibility.
"He's absolutely top class to work with," Solskjaer said. "He's a great kid, he wants to learn, improve, knows to keep feet on the ground, and today he's carrying quite a few knocks but no chance he's going say to me before the game he doesn't want to play."
As 76,000 United fans trooped towards Old Trafford on Saturday, much of the prematch chat was about who the club might sign in January. It is a quirk of modern football that open transfer windows are viewed as the remedy to all ills, but it would be a shame if fans were missing Rashford announcing himself as a world-class talent while longing for players who aren't here. It is important United add new faces to their young squad, but they also need to keep hold of Rashford.
There is a reason the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid are keeping an eye on his situation despite signing a new long-term contract in the summer. His deal is due to expire in 2024, by which time he will be 26 and right in the middle of his peak years.
In his relatively short professional career, he has won the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Europa League, but his talent demands the chance to challenge for the Champions League and the Premier League title. He cannot do it on his own and the longer United's wait goes on, the opportunity to fill his trophy cabinet elsewhere will become harder to resist for Rashford, whether he grew up in Manchester or not.
"He will become so much better," Solskjaer said. "He's got everything to be a top-class player -- attitude, skill, physique. The goals he scored today, inside six-yard box, more of them, then he'll be exceptional."
In the matchday programme against Norwich, a feature on Solskjaer's attack labelled Rashford "the figurehead," but It could quite easily have described his role in the entire team.
At just 22, he is already the face of this new United. Asked to take more responsibility this season, he has thrived, and his performance against Norwich -- rather than the result -- is genuine cause to think the future might be bright at Old Trafford after all.