It was a dazzling run as he stepped inside one player, fooled two more, then slipped it past a further pair for Jesse Lingard to fire Manchester United ahead against Real Madrid on Saturday night. News of Anthony Martial’s demise was rather premature, it’s fair to say.
Unfortunately for Martial, July is about the only month of the year in which foxing five Real Madrid players and laying on a tap-in counts for little of real note. However, the Frenchman certainly took the chance to make a statement after a difficult second campaign in the United shirt had been followed by a low-profile start to pre-season.
All the talk on United’s summer tour so far has been of Romelu Lukaku’s impact, but it’s less than two years since Martial was succeeding in just the situation that the Belgian beast now finds himself in.
The past 12 months have thrown a different light on the former Monaco man’s career, to the extent that the likes of Inter and Wolfsburg have both recently built up their hopes of making a loan move for him. Yet never has there been any indication that United would be ready to entertain such a request, and Jose Mourinho has been more than sympathetic to Martial’s difficulties on and off the pitch during the pair’s first year working together.
Martial’s key role in the 1-1 draw with the European champions in Santa Clara on Sunday night was exactly what the player himself has needed. With the lengthy pursuit of Ivan Perisic going on in the background, it has almost been forgotten by many onlookers what Martial is capable of. Still only 21 and just one season removed from his blockbusting 17-goal debut campaign in the Premier League, the attacker’s talent needs to shine through once more this term. He might have later set the tone for a bizarre penalty shoot-out by blasting over the opening spot kick as United won 2-1 amidst seven comical misses, but he had already laid his marker.
It is clear that he has a future at United even if it is not as the central striker he was first signed as under Louis van Gaal’s leadership. After his lightning start to life in the red shirt, his return as a number nine was not as thrilling as expected and he soon began scoring with greater regularity when switched to the left-hand side of attack.
Under Mourinho this term there can be no doubt that Lukaku is the first choice as centre-forward and Marcus Rashford is the alternative option. Martial is a left winger come what may in this United side. But on Sunday’s evidence, there’s still hope for him despite the various issues he suffered in 2016-17.
He scored the last of United’s five goals in a one-sided clash with LA Galaxy but hadn’t yet been given a start in any of the three pre-season games before facing Madrid. But Mourinho’s decision to give him more than 45 minutes for the first time paid dividends.
"Obviously we want more consistency in his talent. I think today was positive for him, that’s why I left him for 90 minutes on the pitch," said Mourinho afterwards. "He was enjoying it, he was trying things. That is important in these friendly matches to try things, which he did. I think it’s good for his confidence."
Andreas Pereira was also a stand-out in the centre of midfield, while Eric Bailly continued his excellent tour so far with another commanding performance before being one of eight players withdrawn at the break.
When these two teams meet again in 16 days’ time it will mark the threshold of the real stuff starting. The UEFA Super Cup clash in Skopje on August 8 comes just five days before the Premier League campaign gets underway and gives United their first chance of silverware in Mourinho’s sophomore season.
And as Martial battles to make himself a regular name on the teamsheet once more, his wonderful assist on Sunday puts him one step closer to staking a real claim for a starting spot when the season proper gets underway.