London (AFP) – He started the season derided as an expensive panic buy, but Anthony Martial goes into Saturday’s FA Cup final against Crystal Palace as the potential saviour of Manchester United’s season.
The French forward’s deadline-day move from Monaco, at an initial cost of £36 million ($52.6 million, 47 million euros), rising to £58 million, sparked incredulity on both sides of the Channel.
United captain Wayne Rooney had to ask Morgan Schneiderlin, Martial’s France team-mate, who the club’s star signing was.
British tabloid The Sun rechristened the club “MADchester United”, while French sports daily L’Equipe asked: “Where is the sense in the transfer market when an uncapped 19-year-old kid, who has scored 11 goals in 52 games, costs as much as Zidane at his peak?”
United manager Louis van Gaal made a point of emphasising Martial’s “great potential” and said that it would be his successor in the dug-out, rather than the Dutchman himself, who would see the best of the young forward.
Martial, however, was in no mood to take his time and made the first repayment on his huge fee with a wonderful solo goal against Liverpool just 21 minutes after coming off the bench to make his debut.
The 20-year-old has since found the net on 16 further occasions, and his goals have proved particularly valuable in the FA Cup.
Martial’s 83rd-minute equaliser against West Ham United in the quarter-finals kept Van Gaal’s side in the competition and with the score locked at 1-1 in last month’s semi-final against Everton at Wembley, it was his nerveless stoppage-time strike that sent United into their first final since 2007.
His nonchalant demeanour, dazzling footwork and ice-cold finishing have already earned him the adoration of United’s fans, who have immortalised their number nine in song.
– ‘Could have done better’ –
“Tony Marshall came from France,” goes the chant, knowingly using an Anglicised version of Martial’s name. “English press said he had no chance/Fifty million down the drain/Tony Marshall scores again!”
Far from being eased into life at Old Trafford, Martial has become a virtual ever-present, playing more minutes of United’s Premier League campaign than any outfield player apart from Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Juan Mata.
Together with Jesse Lingard, 23, and 18-year-old sensation Marcus Rashford, Martial has formed a youthful trio whose vibrant displays have helped to keep some of the heat off Van Gaal despite United’s pancake-flat football and failure to qualify for the Champions League.
Martial had earned his first senior France call-up just five days before his switch to United, but he now has eight caps and will go into Euro 2016 as a potential starter for the hosts on the left side of the attack in Didier Deschamps’s preferred 4-3-3 system.
The only real bone of contention for Martial this season has been his repeated deployment — with both United and France — as a left-sided forward, rather than a central striker.
Martial makes no secret of his desire for a central role, but Deschamps prefers to use his pace and directness on the flank and Van Gaal does not consider him suited to playing at centre-forward.
For now Martial must bide his time on the wing and in words likely to give right-backs up and down the country shudders — not to mention Alan Pardew’s Palace — he is far from satisfied with his accomplishments to date.
“I think I could have done better,” he said recently when asked to sum up his first season at United.
“There were some chances that I missed, but I think next year it will be much better.”
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