Man United have Louis van Gaal to thank for finding Marcus Rashford

Louis van Gaal may well have mixed feelings on Wednesday when Ajax face Manchester United in the Europa League final. Whether he pins his colours to the Dutch club with which he launched his career or gets behind a United team which continues to bear his fingerprints remains to be seen. But he will certainly be taking great interest in one teenager he thrust into the spotlight and continued to believe in right until the moment he was fired from the Old Trafford hotseat.

Now United's star turn, and Jose Mourinho's biggest hope of success, Marcus Rashford has come a long way since being thrown in at the deep end by Van Gaal less than an hour before United's Europa League round of 32 clash with FC Midtjylland at Old Trafford in February 2016.

Already consumed by a biting injury crisis, the loss of Anthony Martial during the prematch warm-up against the Danish minnows forced Van Gaal to hand Rashford his debut and prompted supporters and journalists alike to scramble for information on the unknown 18-year-old from Manchester.

But for an injury suffered by Will Keane in the FA Cup victory at Shrewsbury Town three days earlier, Rashford is unlikely to have even been in the squad against Midtjylland, but events took their course and the rest, as they say, is history.

Rashford not only scored twice on his debut to help guide United to a 5-1 victory, he did it again three days later on his Premier League bow against Arsenal, scoring two and making the other in a 3-2 win.

Van Gaal unquestionably stumbled onto Rashford -- indeed, senior figures within the United dressing-room have since admitted that they had not even trained with the teenager prior to his elevation into the senior squad -- and it was a case of needs-must.

However, to suggest that Van Gaal got lucky with Rashford would be doing the former Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Netherlands coach a huge disservice.

He may have known little about him when he called him into the squad, but Van Gaal quickly identified his talent and gave him the opportunity to flourish. Many coaches would restore their more experienced players at the first opportunity, but Van Gaal was always ready to give youth a chance. Rashford was trusted enough to start 18 games during the final weeks of the season, scoring eight goals in the process, and he played as big a part in United's FA Cup success as any of his more senior teammates.

Van Gaal's legacy at United comes in the shape of Rashford. His football may have been unambitious, dull and outdated, and Mourinho has been forced to unpick many of the knots left behind by his predecessor, but Van Gaal will watch the final on Wednesday with some sense of satisfaction when he sees Rashford lead the line for United.

When I interviewed Van Gaal in February 2016, at a time when uncertainty over his future was swirling endlessly around him, he was unequivocal about his ethos of turning to youth.

"It is always good that you educate your own players, in the culture of Manchester United and also the playing style of Manchester United," Van Gaal said. "But when I leave, I cannot help them anymore.

"They must do it by themselves, and that is also very good because I am only a means to an end for them. They do it by themselves, but maybe I can be a very good means for my players. It is up to the young players to take their opportunities and the main factor in that is the player himself.

"It's here [he points to his head], but also his attitude, how he deals with negative things, because it is not always sunshine and hallelujah. But I hope people will look back in the future and talk of the young players as my legacy, but you can never tell."

Rashford has taken his opportunity, but Van Gaal has yet to be afforded full credit for the role he played in nurturing the striker last season.

He blooded many youngsters at United and more have fallen by the wayside than succeeded, yet the same applies to those promoted under Sir Alex Ferguson. Everyone remembers the "Class of '92", the youngsters such as Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers, who became club legends, yet for every one of those, there is a John Curtis, Terry Cooke, Pat McGibbon or Federico Macheda who come and go before fading away.

The same applies to the likes of Paddy McNair, Donald Love, Tyler Blackett and Joe Riley, who all made the breakthrough under Van Gaal, but when it comes to Rashford and Jesse Lingard, another Van Gaal debutant, the former manager has certainly left his mark.

Lingard has become a regular under Mourinho, while Rashford has made more appearances (52) than any other United player this season. And when United take to the field against Ajax at the Friends Arena on Wednesday, both could be handed prominent roles by Mourinho as the manager attempts to claim the only major trophy to have eluded the club over the years and cement their passage into the Champions League once again.

Rashford is the jewel in the crown, though, and not even Mourinho can deny that he was put there and polished by Van Gaal.