Two summers ago, Anthony Martial went AWOL from Manchester United’s tour of America and was at odds with a manager, Jose Mourinho, who was actively looking to sell him against the wishes of the Old Trafford board.
Nearly two years on and the gifted but sometimes infuriating Frenchman is the spearhead of an emerging United team and very much part of the future of this club.
There are still plenty of occasions when Martial’s laissez-faire attitude makes you sympathise with Mourinho who privately wanted rid of Martial and publicly criticised him for leaving camp in LA to be at the birth of his second child.
But this was one of those days to remind you why he is worth the trouble. A first hat-trick for United took Martial to 19 goals for the season – one better than his impressive breakthrough campaign at Old Trafford following a move from Monaco that could eventually be worth up to £58million.
More significantly, it moved Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side to within two points of fourth-placed Chelsea, who play champions Manchester City on Thursday night, after extending their unbeaten run to 13 games.
On the hottest day of the year at an empty Old Trafford for the first Premier League game here in three-and-a-half months, we were never going to see the best of either United, Manchester or Sheffield. Indeed, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different from a frantic 3-3 draw between the two clubs at Bramall Lane in November.
But Solskjaer’s side continue to evolve and we saw Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes starting together for the first time. Both impressed again against a Sheffield United side who never looked like securing the win needed to leapfrog United in the table.
But if Pogba’s return was a talking point, it was his French teammate who stole the headlines here.
United’s record signing was included in the starting line-up for the first time in nine months along with Nemanja Matic, and United’s other change saw Mason Greenwood starting on the right in place of Daniel James.
Blades boss Chris Wilder was forced into changes for his team’s third away game in the space of eight days as Phil Jagielka replaced the suspended John Egan two months short of his 38th birthday and Simon Moore took over in goal from Dean Henderson whose loan from United made him ineligible.
David McGoldrick and Lys Mousset also replaced Billy Sharp and Oli McBurnie in attack following a 3-0 defeat at Newcastle.
Much of the pre-match talk had centred around David de Gea in the wake of his error at Tottenham, and the challenge he could face at United when Henderson returns to the club.
Solskjaer defended De Gea by describing him as the best goalkeeper in the world, but in truth he didn’t have many opportunities to show it in a first half that saw United surge into a two-goal lead.
The first came as early as the seventh minute when Aaron Wan-Bissaka took a throw-in from a relatively harmless position on the right. Martial’s challenge was enough to distract Oliver Norwood and the ball ran for Marcus Rashford.
United’s No 10 drilled a low cross to the near post and Martial had continued his run into the box, getting in front of Chris Basham to turn the ball home.
It was no means the only piece of creativity by Rashford but, unfortunately, his finishing was not quite as accomplished.
When Martial returned the favour moments after Harry Maguire had blocked George Baldock’s shot in the 12 minute and Rashford launched a breakaway, the youngster was only able to bundle a shot wide of an empty goal under pressure from Jack Robinson.
Soon afterwards, Rashford played a shot pass to Pogba who returned a sumptuous little chip over the top of the Blades’ defence. Rashford decided to take it on the volley first time but fluffed his attempt from just inside the box.
Maguire thought he had doubled United’s lead when he headed in from Fernandes’ corner but it was ruled out for a blatant push on Jagielka.
At that point it looked like a sharper, slicker United might run away with the game. But their opponents steadied themselves and looked like getting to half-time without any further damage until Martial struck again in the 43rd minute.
Again the danger seemed minimal when Fernandes played a short pass to Pogba who laid it off to Wan-Bissaka 25 yards from goal. Instead of playing it back to the Frenchman, Wan-Bissaka turned and drove past Enda Stevens down the right.
There were plenty of defenders waiting to deal with his low cross into the box but again Martial reacted faster than Basham to score from close-range.
In the second half, Jagielka blocked Greenwood’s shot which span just past the far post and Martial scuffed another chance wide after Pogba’s run into the box had taken his past four opponents, before United’s man-of-the-match completed his hat-trick in the 74th minute.
Fernandes produced a lovely flick to direct Wan-Bissaka’s pass to the feet of Martial. He played a one-two with Rashford and then dinked the ball nonchalantly over the advancing Moore.
It’s the first Premier League hat-trick scored by a United player since Robin van Persie in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season seven years ago. Another sign perhaps that United are back on track at last.
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