MANCHESTER, England -- When Manchester United played in the twilight zone of the Europa League in recent seasons, Marcus Rashford never hid his frustration at being unable to display his talents on the biggest stage, the Champions League, but he is rapidly making up for lost time. A week after scoring a late winner against Paris Saint-Germain, he struck a 16-minute hat trick Wednesday to blow away RB Leipzig.
Rashford just can't avoid the spotlight right now. If he is not scoring goals for United, he is challenging politicians by fighting for free meals for underprivileged children and earning recognition from the Queen of England in the process.
He is becoming a sporting icon who can do no wrong, and Leipzig became the latest opposition to learn that the hard way.
Julian Nagelsmann's team arrived at Old Trafford as leaders of the Bundesliga and unbeaten in any competition since losing to Paris Saint-Germain in last season's Champions League semifinals in Lisbon, but United crushed them 5-0, with Rashford stealing the show as a second-half substitute. A 63rd-minute replacement for 19-year-old Mason Greenwood, who had earlier become United's second-youngest Champions League scorer (after Wayne Rooney) by making it 1-0 in the first half, Rashford delivered an incredible display of finishing to score his first United hat trick and send Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team clear at the top of Group H.
Rashford has always had an eye for goal. From the moment he scored twice on his debut, as an 18-year-old against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League in February 2016, the England forward has looked at home in a United shirt and with all the pressure that comes with it. He has now scored 74 goals in 223 appearances for the club -- a healthy rate of approximately a goal every three games -- but this substitute outing against Leipzig was only his 20th Champions League game, and he has plenty of catching up to do on contemporaries such as Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland.
Both Mbappe and Haaland have elevated themselves into football's stratosphere thanks largely to their goal-scoring feats in the Champions League. Mbappe now has a World Cup winners' medal to his name, but he burst onto the scene with Monaco in the Champions League in 2017 and has been at the top ever since. And while Haaland announced himself to the world only last season, starting out with a hat trick for FC Salzburg against Genk in the group stage, the Norway international ended the campaign with Borussia Dortmund having confirmed his status as the best young striker in the game.
Rashford believes he deserves to be in the same company, but to prove that, he has to do it in the Champions League. The unfortunate thing for Rashford, however, is that United haven't been good enough to give him Champions League football for most of his senior career at the club.
But now that they are back in the biggest competition again, Rashford is showcasing his devastating talent, and he is doing it against top-class opposition, too. His winning goal in Paris last week came against the French champions and last season's beaten finalists, while against Leipzig, he was up against Dayot Upamecano, the young French defender who is widely regarded as one of the best emerging talents in the game. But Upamecano will have left the Old Trafford pitch with his head spinning after Rashford's blistering cameo.
Rashford's first goal, on 75 minutes, came after the forward sprinted onto a Bruno Fernandes pass and ran down on goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi before beating the former Liverpool keeper from close range. The assistant referee had flagged for offside, but referee Matej Jug waved play on to enable the VAR to make the final decision, and the Slovenian official was proved right, with Rashford's having started inches inside his own half.
Rashford scored his second three minutes later, beating Upamecano in the process, and then almost scored again with a mazy run that ended with his shot being blocked. But the hat trick goal came in stoppage time, after Anthony Martial had made it 4-0 from the penalty spot, when Rashford blasted home from close range after being teed up by Martial.
In doing so, he became the first United player to score a Champions League hat trick since Robin van Persie against Olympiakos in 2014. And Rashford also became the first United substitute to score three in a game since Solskjaer achieved the feat in an 8-1 win against Nottingham Forest in 1999.
"He came on and did well," Solskjaer said, with some understatement, about Rashford's performance. "You want that from the substitutes."
Rashford was United's outstanding performer, but Solskjaer had plenty of others who raised their game against the German side. Paul Pogba, David De Gea and Harry Maguire all impressed, while Greenwood's finish for the opening goal suggested he has not been distracted by his recent omission from the squad by Solskjaer.
Having been so poor in defeat against Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford this season, United have now beaten two of the best teams in Europe in the space of a week. Solskjaer clearly has the players, and tactics, to succeed against the top sides. But it helps when you have a striker as impressive as Rashford.
If he continues to shine on the Champions League stage, who knows how far United can go this season?