LVG saviour Martial desperate to get his hands on silverware
He has come to Louis van Gaal's rescue on so many occasions this season that it would be little surprise if Anthony Martial turned out to be the Manchester United manager's saviour again in the FA Cup final at Wembley this evening.
Victory against Crystal Palace, in a repeat of the 1990 cup final that set an embattled Alex Ferguson on the road to success at Old Trafford, could prove the difference between Van Gaal keeping his job or losing it, between a tolerable season for United and a torrid one.
Could Martial be to Van Gaal what Mark Robins and Lee Martin were to Ferguson 26 years ago, heroes whose goals en route to cup glory helped to buy their manager valuable time?
Having missed out on Champions League qualification and often left fans bored and bewildered with his suffocating football, Van Gaal will doubtless be pinning his hopes on the world's most expensive teenage purchase again to come up trumps in the cup and ensure a tumultuous campaign ends on a high.
It was not just the manner and significance of Martial's dramatic stoppage-time winning goal in the 2-1 cup semi-final win against Everton that caught the eye, it was the celebration that followed.
Six months earlier, Paul Scholes had claimed Martial "doesn't look bothered if he scores a goal" and that United might be better off finding a centre-forward in the January transfer window who was.
But here was the France striker charging towards the United faithful, fists pumping and screaming in delight, before launching himself into the warm embrace of supporters who have quickly taken him into their hearts.
"The Everton goal was very important," Martial said. "It got us through and it was great to go into the crowd and celebrate with the fans. I guess it's going to be an even better atmosphere in the final and we're just going to do everything we can to make sure we win."
There have not been many occasions this season when United fans have had much cause to contest Scholes's caustic criticism, particularly in relation to Van Gaal, but while the former midfielder's assessment was clearly misguided in the case of Martial, even the player seems to appreciate what he was trying to get at.
For most of this interview, Martial sits head bowed and stony faced. There is a brief chuckle when it is suggested he has the dead-eyed look of an assassin on the pitch but frequent shows of emotions are clearly not his thing.
"I'd heard about that," Martial said through a translator when asked about Scholes's remarks. "Goal-scoring is what I do and it's the thing that makes me most happy so I'm really happy inside. But I'm just not the sort of guy who shows that sort of emotion on the outside too much. But not happy when I score? Scoring makes me the happiest because it's what it's all about."
It is a reflection of the impact Martial has made during a largely miserable season for United that no one is talking anymore about the projected £61.6 million (€80 million)fee the club paid Monaco to sign the then-teenager last September. United fans have since revelled in the fuss about the price tag and used it as the inspiration for the song they now sing with regular gusto about the 20-year-old:
"Tony Martial came from France, English press said he had no chance,
Fifty million down the drain,
As Tony Martial scores again"
So is the man himself ever tempted to sing along? "I don't really know the words, well at least all of them anyway," he said.
There has been talk in recent weeks of interest from Paris St-Germain, but despite United's problems under Van Gaal, Martial seems wedded to Manchester. "You never know what happens in the future but the fans have really accepted me and I think the fact they sing this song about me all the time shows they're quite happy with me," he said.
"I just do my best to try and pay back that support. I love Manchester, I like being here and certainly I see myself being here for a good while yet."
Martial has scored 17 goals and been the spearhead for a group of young players who have invariably spared Van Gaal's blushes and succeeded where more senior players have failed. It certainly seems a long time ago since Wayne Rooney was having to look up Martial on Google to find out who he was in the wake of the transfer that stunned football. "Well he knows me now doesn't he!" Martial said. "I heard that story as well and I guess it's pretty amusing."
So how would he assess his first season? Worryingly for defences, Martial believes he has barely scraped the surface. "I think it's gone OK but I'm hoping to have a better season next time around," he said. "I still feel deep down I could have done better."
Some fans already sense an icon in the making. "It all depends on how I play, how many goals I score," he said. "If I was to become an icon then I'd be very happy. I'll need to score a lot of goals and the team will need to pick up trophies, though."
He, not to mention Van Gaal, will hope his first on that journey is the FA Cup tonight.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)