It was the 18-year-old’s first derby, his first derby goal therefore, although to anyone who witnessed it, this famous old fixture will long be remembered as the Martin Demichelis derby.
The 35-year-old reserve central defender, pressed into action because of injuries to Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi, endured the sort of afternoon that can end careers and, in his case, surely did, given his contribution to City’s demise.
Most tellingly, after 18 minutes, it was his crude lunge at Rashford, as he chased down a Juan Mata touch, that allowed the pacy teenager to head straight to goal where he beat Joe Hart with a finish that spoke volumes about his frightening maturity and boundless potential.
It was an embarrassing moment for the Argentinian international, highlighting that his powers may be in terminal decline; but worse was to follow for player and team.
Within minutes, a similarly mistimed effort to stop Anthony Martial ended with the Frenchman easing past him and sending a thunderous shot on goal with Hart sparing his teammate’s blushes with a strong save.
At the end of the first half, Demichelis also appeared to trip Rashford in the area, the City defender’s angry reaction towards the youngster also leading to a shoving match between players from both teams as the temperature of a feisty derby turned up a notch.
Soon after the restart, Demichelis may have produced his most costly error yet — in terms of short-term damage to City’s season — with an under-hit backpass which Martial chased and which forced Hart to stretch and injure his calf in making a desperation clearance.
Hart was stretchered off, replaced by Willy Caballero. Demichelis did not last much longer. By the time Manuel Pellegrini did the merciful thing and held up the substitution board bearing Demichelis’s number 26, the veteran was put out of his misery.
Coincidentally, it was the introduction of Wilfried Bony, as Demichelis’ replacement, that saw City enjoy their best period of the game, the final half hour seeing them press on relentlessly but without the finishing prowess that has been their stock-in-trade during the good times.
Even the usually immaculate Sergio Aguero, as good a finisher as there is in the Premier League, was not immune to the malaise that is sweeping City, and has been since Pellegrini announced his pending departure.
To prove the point, in injury-time, the final chance of a frantic finale fell to the Argentinian forward who could only drag a low shot wide and the final whistle, moments later, heralded a United victory which, inconceivably, moves them within a point of City.
It should not go unnoted that, for all the criticism that has been correctly levelled at Louis van Gaal this season, it is now conceivable that his team could finish the campaign as the highest-placed side in Manchester.
Since Pellegrini announced he will not be remaining with the club, 11 games have seen City win four times — at Sunderland, Dynamo Kiev, at home to a wretched Aston Villa, and in a penalty shoot-out in the Capital One Cup final — and the incoming boss, Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola now faces the very real prospect of taking over a team in the Europa, rather than Champions, League next season.
City had started the game promisingly enough, Jesus Navas volleying wide within the opening 10 minutes, and David de Gea saving well from the City winger prior to Rashford’s 15th-minute strike.
The home side struggled to cope with the shock of going behind — Demichelis certainly looked in a daze as he failed to connect with a David Silva free-kick midway through the first period just six yards out — and Yaya Toure followed suit just before the interval, miskicking from a corner close to goal.
It was better from the Blues after the restart and Aguero headed against a post from Toure’s 65th-minute cross as Bony added some physicality and a presence for City to aim at in the United area. There was an almighty scramble involving the substitute, Aguero and Toure, any of whom might have equalised, and Navas cut in before blazing a shot over as the home side pressed.
There was to be no reprieve, no victory for a City team that starts this week 15 points behind leaders Leicester City. If that statistic, more than any other today, sums up this craziest of Premier League campaigns, it is hard to imagine City’s billionaire owners sharing the neutral’s enthusiasm for such a state of affairs.
Hart 6 (Caballero 49, 6); Sagna 6, Demichelis 3 (Bony 53, 8), Mangala 7, Clichy 5; Toure 6, Fernandinho 7; Navas 6, Silva 6, Sterling 6 (Fernando 25, 6); Aguero 6.
Zabaleta, Kolarov,, Iheanacho, Garcia.
De Gea 7; Darmian 6 (Fosu-Mensah 83), Smalling 6, Blind 8, Rojo 6 (Valencia 63, 6); Carrick 8, Schneiderlin 6; Mata 7 (Schweinsteiger 70, 6), Lingard 7, Martial 7; Rashford 9.
Romero, Memphis, Januzaj, Fellaini.
M Oliver 6