Those neutrals who are partial to a flutter will not be discounting the possibility of a Crystal Palace victory at Old Trafford this weekend, especially with the odds currently 8/1 on an Eagles win.
With Manchester United in a state of flux, fans impatient and anxious at the club’s lack of transfer activity, and a whole host of first team players only just back in training, an upset could be on the cards. By the latest count, there are 11 United players doubtful to make the matchday squad largely due to a lack of match fitness.
And with Roy Hodgson’s side fresh off the back of a 1-0 victory over much-fancied Southampton in the Premier League last weekend, you sense any result is possible. Games between these two sides are rarely one-sided.
It seems an age ago since Palace last visited United. But when they did, on 24th August 2019, they emerged victorious. And bar the likely inclusion of the two actual permanent signings United have made since that sunny day, Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side is likely to be very simiar.
One man who will surely feature for United is Anthony Martial.
Many of his teammates have endured difficult summers. Harry Maguire and Mason Greenwood became embroiled in controversies and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Paul Pogba and Juan Mata were all quarantined at various stages due to covid-19 precautions.
All the while Martial was handed the international recognition his 2019/20 season performances for United thoroughly deserved. It had been a while since Martial had merited a spot in the France squad, partially because of the outrageous quality at Didier Deschamps’ disposal but also because the United man had struggled to find consistency under Jose Mourinho.
But then Solskjaer came in, with the Palace game last season just the third game in which Martial wore the No.9 shirt under the Norwegian — and played in the corresponding centre-forward position.
Unfortunately for the 24-year-old, the game did not follow the pattern of his previous two (against Chelsea and Wolves) when he found the net and convinced fans he was the right replacement for Romelu Lukaku through the middle. No, Martial laboured in the 2-1 defeat to Palace, with it later being revealed he was struggled with a thigh injury. He did not feature again for nearly three months and United’s form took a nosedive.
Upon Martial’s return in October, many remained unconvinced that he could shoulder the responsibility as United’s No.9. But the Frenchman then set about proving his critics wrong and ended the 2019/20 campaign with a tally of 23 goals in 48 games.
Some, bizarrely, still question Martial.
Even United legend Paul Scholes claimed earlier this summer that the club ought to be targeting a true No.9 like Harry Kane, instead of top target Jadon Sancho. The comments were strange, considering Martial had got better and better as the season progressed. After football resumed in June after lockdown, Martial was simply electric.
“I just think United need a number nine, a real centre-forward, a real goalscorer and Harry Kane would be that man for me,” said Scholes.
Former Sir Alex Ferguson assistant Steve McLaren concurred, adding: “Martial is a fantastic player, but in the big games when it really matters he never looks like a true goalscorer. They need class in that position.”
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It is pretty clear, however, that criticism is like water off a duck’s back to Martial. His focus and drive make him the player Solskjaer admires so much, and is eager to mould into a world class striker. The United manager himself should also ignore it and keep faith with his forward.
Martial is certainly beginning to reach those higher echelons. He has improved in that regard even in the 12 months since that last Old Trafford meeting with Palace.
And given that so many players are going into the Premier League opener undercooked, Martial will likely be United’s most important player. He can keep his own personal fire burning.
United’s recent pre-season friendly against Aston Villa, in which Martial did not feature, saw them dominate for long periods and fail to convert chances. The old Anthony Martial may not have solved that problem, but you sense bringing the new and improved Martial into the United side this weekend will inject goals and belief.