Will Martial end up as another di Maria?
Martial's good, but it's risky to build around a boy
MAN UNITED v WOLFSBURG
(Tomorrow, 2.30am, Singtel TV Ch 112 & StarHub TV Ch 212)
He wears his Manchester United jersey like a second skin. The goals are flowing and his teammates are queuing up with compliments.
His attacking impetus feeds the growing belief that Louis van Gaal's men are moving from transition to template. There is less fumbling and more final product. Silverware is in their sights.
That was Angel di Maria this time last year. Remember him? Just 12 short months ago, the Argentinian was a deity with a dainty left foot.
After three goals and three assists in his first five games, di Maria brought both the theatre and the dreams back to Old Trafford. He dared United to believe.
He never scored again in the English Premier League.
That's not really a reflection on di Maria, but rather the insufferable hype that threatens to suffocate every pretty young thing that skips out of United's dressing room.
Five games in and di Maria was a tour de force. Five games in and Anthony Martial finds himself following in the Argentinian's footsteps.
Hopefully, he's not wearing the same concrete boots that weighed down di Maria's feet.
After four goals in his first four games, followed by an assist in the fifth, the 19-year-old is expected to be the young wolf against Wolfsburg tomorrow morning (Singapore time), stepping over mutilated German carcasses on his way to Champions League victory.
The Frenchman is not so much a victim of his own early success, but of circumstances.
United top the Premier League standings thanks in large part to being the least bad title-contenders.
Van Gaal is taking credit for his winning formula while growing a nose to rival Pinocchio.
In truth, the Dutchman got lucky.
Shortly after signing Martial, van Gaal claimed that United overpaid for the striker, adding that the boy needed time to bed down.
But now, Martial is the kid who cannot be dropped. He's the creative apex of van Gaal's golden triangle, with Memphis Depay, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata all busying themselves at the base. Everything came to fruition against Sunderland with the basemen all scoring and Martial, providing the cherry on top with his first assist.
Their interplay was often exquisite, an obvious cause for concern for both Wolfsburg and Arsenal, who host United on Sunday.
The Gunners' centre-backs are not blessed with pace, while Martial has the leggy, balletic movement of an Olympic sprinter. On the shoulder of the last defender, he often accelerates like one.
Van Gaal, never one to let perspective get in the way of hubris, speaks of Martial and compact football philosophies but knows United's attack was the result of a happy accident.
Rooney was the manager's preferred target man, but after failing to score against Newcastle, Swansea and Liverpool, he ended up wearing the target. So often the media fall guy, the skipper was a marked man, hammered in the headlines and isolated on the pitch.
To accommodate his weary skipper, van Gaal tried more formations than the Republic of Singapore Air Force. None matched. None fitted. They were out of sync and Rooney was almost out of time.
And then the kid came on against Liverpool and scored on his debut.
Martial offered a Get Out Of Jail card to both his coach and his captain.
Rooney has roamed in the hole ever since, the least effective of the front four but ably supported by the other three.
Relatively benign fixtures against disjointed Liverpool and Southampton and an abject Sunderland added a gloss to United's lucky break. Even then, Rooney required 999 minutes to finally end the longest goal drought of his career. The kid came to his rescue.
Martial is a magnificent paradox. He's United's best attacking outlet and yet still a man in the making. Both Wolfsburg and Arsenal will fear his speed. United will fear burnout.
His youthful brashness allows him to terrorise fullbacks and his physique defines the quintessential No. 9.
Martial has the nascent qualities of a complete centre-forward in an incomplete side. If he delivers again against Wolfsburg, United may face a selection dilemma rather than a permanent solution.
Martial is the best striker they've got. The trouble is he's the only decent striker they've got. Van Gaal must continue with the risky task of building his attack around a boy.
I hope so. It is realistic. Reaching the final is an aim. Winning the final is a little bit of luck. We still need time to improve. We still have to improve to win the Premier League or Champions League.
— Louis van Gaal on whether Man United can win the Champions League before his contract runs out after the 2016/17 season
United bank on Old Trafford roar
The roar of Old Trafford must be heard loud and clear tomorrow morning (Singapore time) when Wolfsburg come to town.
Juan Mata has rallied the home crowd ahead of their crucial Champions League Group B clash.
Manchester United need to get their campaign back on track after losing their opening match 2-1 to PSV Eindhoven.
Besides banking on the dazzling form of Anthony Martial, Mata (right) is hoping the fans play a part on the return of European football to the Theatre of Dreams after the hiatus of last season.
The Spaniard wrote in his blog: "We know we must fix our situation in the group after losing against PSV on week one.
"In order to do so we count on Old Trafford, because we are sure our crowd will celebrate being back to the top competition in Europe."
Mata is wary of Wolfsburg, despite the departure of winger Kevin de Bruyne to Manchester City.
"The Germans played very well last season, and they are having a good start in this one. I have seen them in a few games and they are a dangerous team with talented players I know very well, like (Andre) Schuerrle, a former teammate."
United defender Chris Smalling agreed.
He said: "We know that our home games in the Champions League are crucial to getting through the group.
"Hopefully we can keep the fans happy and take maximum points."
Besides home advantage, United fans are also eager to see teenage wunderkind Martial continue his hot streak.
The 19-year-old Frenchman, initially seen as a panic buy on the last day of the transfer window this month, has been a revelation, netting four times since leaving Monaco to help United top the Premier League for the first time in two years.
Since the PSV loss, in a game overshadowed by the broken leg suffered by Luke Shaw, United have won 3-2 at Southampton and beaten Sunderland 3-0.
Smalling said: "He (Martial) is very direct, he is willing to take on players and he is willing to take on that risk
"I think, in the final third, it is an area where you can take that risk because you can't take it at the back. He looks a very sharp player."
Wounded Wolfsburg, who drew 1-1 with bottom side Hannover on Saturday after being crushed 5-1 by Bayern Munich last week, are ready for the hot reception.
"We have worked very hard to get here and experience games like the one at Manchester United," said captain Diego Benaglio. "So we want to look really good there and we are certainly not going to England just to look at the stadium."
- Wire Services.