MANCHESTER, England — An $800 million cast of global superstars will take the field for the Manchester derby in the English Premier League on Saturday.
The game could be decided, though, by two teenage academy graduates who’ve barely cost City and United a penny.
Marcus Rashford of United and Kelechi Iheanacho of City are fearless, free-spirited strikers who provide proof that kids can still break through at top clubs in the world’s most lucrative league. That they’ve started the season as the No. 2 strikers for their teams is testament to their ability and the faith being shown in them by their managers.
The 18-year-old Rashford is the better known of the pair. Plucked from United’s youth team to solve an injury crisis in the first team in February, Rashford scored eight goals in the final months of last season and forced his way into England’s squad for the European Championship.
Quick, lithe, direct and with a composure in front of goal, Rashford is proving to be a player for the big occasion. He has scored at least one goal on his senior United debut, his Premier League debut, his England debut and his England under-21 debut. Oh, and he also netted the winner in his first Manchester derby.
Rashford is already showing last season was no fluke, coming on as a sub to score United’s injury-time winner against Hull before the international break in his first league game this campaign.
“The kid is going to play lots of matches, for sure,” United manager Jose Mourinho said.
Iheanacho, 19, has done remarkably well to emerge as City’s second-choice striker considering the caliber and number of attackers who have been at the club in recent seasons.
City has been happy to offload Edin Dzeko, Stevan Jovetic and Wilfried Bony over 12 months to give Iheanacho his chance, making him the first player to come through from the club’s $300 million training and player-development center – the City Football Academy – since its opening in December 2014.
Already a Nigeria international, Iheanacho is quick like Rashford, is technically gifted and has been compared to Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge with his movement and finishing ability.
Iheanacho was elevated to the senior squad in the summer of 2015 and scored 14 goals in his breakthrough year last season, including a winner in his second league start and a hat trick in an FA Cup game. He opened his account for this season with a long-range piledriver for Nigeria in its 1-0 win over Tanzania last week.
With Sergio Aguero suspended for this weekend, Iheanacho is in line for a start at Old Trafford in what might be the biggest game of his life.
“Games like this mean a lot,” he said, “and it doesn’t come bigger than a derby.”
Here’s a look at where Rashford and Iheanacho might fit in during the Manchester derby:
Zlatan Ibrahimovic stands in the way of Rashford with United deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation, but Mourinho said after the teenager’s winner against Hull that he could pair them up front.
“We play now with a second man behind Zlatan,” Mourinho said. “We can start some matches with a player in front of Zlatan.”
Alternatively, and more likely, Rashford could start on the wing, potentially on the left in place of Anthony Martial to use his pace against Pablo Zabaleta or Bacary Sagna.
Rashford still hasn’t started a game under Mourinho, who may decide to keep him in his role as an impact substitute.
The most straightforward option for City coach Pep Guardiola is to replace the suspended Aguero with Iheanacho and retain the 4-1-4-1 formation City has used in its opening five wins this season.
Guardiola could, however, choose to play one of his wingers – Raheem Sterling or Nolito – up front. Or there’s the option of using David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne as a so-called “false nine,” basically leaving City without an out-and-out striker and instead flooding the midfield.
“We try to reduce the unpredictability of the game,” Mourinho said. “(But) we know they have so many options, so for (my) players is more difficult. It feels a bit of a contradiction, but without Aguero it’s more difficult.”