Marcus Rashford stole the headlines from Pione Sisto in Europa League play last February. The Danish winger scored a majestic goal for Midtjylland against Manchester United in the first leg, making fun of the defence on a mazy run, and was also on target at Old Trafford with a clinical finish, but ultimately, everyone wanted to talk only about the sensational debut by the homegrown teenager.
On Thursday, Sisto is about to face Rashford in the same competition, this time as a Celta Vigo star in the semifinals, and he would love to take revenge and outshine him. There is a decent chance that he will succeed because the 22-year-old is definitely a man for a big occasion. It is hardly surprising that he performed so brilliantly against the Red Devils last season. Sisto is fearless and knows what it takes to score when it matters most.
Take his heroics in May 2015, for example. Sisto missed three previous months with a groin injury but was back in time to take part in the game of the season against FC Copenhagen as a substitute. Just a few minutes after entering the field, the winger set up the first goal for Andre Romer and then immediately after scored himself. Midtjylland won 2-0 and secured the historic maiden championship title.
Having scored four goals in Europa League last season, Pione moved to Celta for €6 million, and immediately made himself known in the big fixture against Barcelona.
Sisto has never hidden his desire to play for the Catalan giants one day, and facing them for the first time could have been an overwhelming affair. The Dane didn't look frightened at all, however. A week previously, Sisto scored his first La Liga goal at Espanyol, with a terrific slalom from his own half that even Leo Messi would have been proud of. It took him only 22 minutes to find the back of Marc-Andre ter Stegen's net too. Sisto played the full 90 minutes as Celta deservedly beat the champions 4-3.
After switching shirts with Gerard Pique, the youngster joked when talking to a Danish journalist. "It was him who asked for my shirt," he stated before laughing and saying: "No, of course it was me."
Those words highlight Sisto's joyful and humorous character. He is a very easygoing person who keeps smiling even when things go wrong, and that makes him extremely popular with his teammates. "Pione is always in a good mood and is very positive in his approach to things. It is important to have a guy like him in the squad," former Midtjylland and now Celtic defender Erik Sviatchenko said.
It is easier to understand Sisto's attitude when you watch the traditional African dance his parents chose to perform to celebrate the winger's first call-up to Denmark's Under-21 national team in 2014. The family experienced tough times when escaping the war in South Sudan to Europe through Uganda. Pione was born on the way, and his childhood could have been difficult in such circumstances. Instead, his parents never gave up, immediately felt at home in Denmark and managed to raise him happily, without forgetting their origins.
Sisto is multicultural -- Danish through and through, he has a rich African background -- and this mix clearly helps him on the pitch. He is hugely unpredictable to defenders, blessed with brilliant technical skills and lightning speed, as well as improvisation. He is bold, always willing to take on opponents and invent new tricks. Yet he is also extremely dedicated and hard-working: qualities that make him the perfect professional.
Ever since he joined the small local club Tjorring at the age of seven, Sisto kept training more than others, simply because he enjoyed playing football. The coaches -- especially Kent Kalhoj, who took the talent under his wing -- had to persuade him to go home at times. Kalhoj also understood that Sisto was bored playing with children of his age because they were not on the same level and thus let him train with older kids.
Sisto has always been the smallest guy on the pitch anyway, and his frame is still slim at just 171 centimetres, but he is used to that. Bigger defenders can't cope with his agility, and he only needed to be guided on how to use the skills better. Former Midtjylland coach Glenn Riddersholm was the right man for the job. "Pione has evolved from an individualist into a team player. He can play on both wings and became more tactically flexible," he said after the team won the title in 2015.
That success was important for Sisto, who was voted Player of the Year in Denmark in 2014. His natural self-confidence continued to grow, and new challenges didn't scare him. It was no small burden to have been expected to replace the Manchester City-bound star Nolito at Celta in the summer, but Sisto claimed: "I don't worry about being compared to him. I am used to pressure".
He knew that only hard work would enable him to prove his worth in a much stronger league, stating: "Football is faster in Spain, but I like to have to make decisions faster than I was used to in Denmark." The transition wasn't always smooth, and Sisto was a bit inconsistent in his first months in Vigo, despite scoring those great goals against Espanyol and Barcelona, but the gradual process has been crowned a success. Coach Eduardo Berizzo usually uses him on the left wing rather than the right, and his performances have been marvellous. A pair of great goals against Genk in the Europa League quarterfinals were just reward for his efforts.
The only significant problem remains at the national team. "We all hope that Sisto will become an important player for Denmark, but the coach Age Hareide uses the 5-3-2 formation, and there is no place for natural wingers in that plan. That is a shame because he is one of our brightest talents," Morten Morch, a commentator at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, told ESPN FC.
Should Hareide change tactics for Sisto? Another great performance on the big stage won't do his cause any harm. Manchester United should beware the man who is used to scoring against them, and this time even Rashford might not be able to save the Red Devils from the flying Dane.