Magical Martial sparks dreams of ‘new’ Cantona at Manchester United
Manchester United 3-1 Liverpool
It can often take just one player, one mercurial addition, for a team to make the leap from mediocrity and Manchester United have had a few of those down the years.
Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo set the bar unreachably high at Old Trafford with their own brand of inspiration.
However, the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron, Dimitar Berbatov and Angel Di Maria all fell well short of scaling such heights in a United shirt when handed the challenge of doing so.
Whether Anthony Martial follows the Cantona path or becomes another Di Maria - who shone brightly initially before fading away - will not become evident for months and years.
But not many footballers score with their first shot in the Premier League and even fewer do so with a goal of such breathtaking audacity and composure as that which crowned United's victory against Liverpool.
How Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers must have yearned for the talismanic brilliance of Luis Suarez as Martial slalomed through his back four to restore United's two-goal advantage, moments after Christian Benteke's marvellous bicycle kick had given the visitors hope.
Suarez once did for Liverpool what Martial did for United, only on a game-by-game basis.
But life after Suarez has proved to be grim for Liverpool, who alarmingly lacked any kind of flair or zest at Old Trafford, and the flash of gold provided by Martial only served as a reminder of the value of a player who is prepared be bold and daring when a game is in the balance.
Martial, whose deadline-day arrival from AS Monaco could ultimately cost United a fee of £56m, was Louis van Gaal's 11th-hour gamble - a young prospect, courted by many of Europe's top clubs, but still regarded as too raw to warrant such an exorbitant outlay.
Van Gaal and United, who had allowed the forwards Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and Javier Hernandez to leave Old Trafford, needed attacking options, however, so Martial was signed to howls of derision in France and an expectant audience in Manchester waited anxiously to see whether the boy - the world's costliest teenager - would make his mark.
After spending the first 13 minutes of his debut as a substitute waiting for a first touch, Martial exploded on to the scene with a goal which will do little to silence those comparisons to Thierry Henry.
"I have to be totally honest, I didn't know an awful lot about him - like many," United midfielder Michael Carrick said.
"But I do now. It doesn't get any better than that, does it? Coming on and scoring against Liverpool like that. He has done well to get in that position and I thought the finish was terrific, how he just slotted it home. He was so calm and composed and you can't ask for a better start."
Van Gaal, who claimed last week that Martial was a long-term signing "for my successor", immediately warned against expecting the player to repeat his debut heroics on a consistent basis.
However, Carrick, who saw a young Ronaldo develop alongside him at Old Trafford, believes that Martial's goalscoring introduction may actually reduce the pressure and expectancy.
"He is off the mark now, he has announced himself," Carrick said. "Everyone has seen it on the big stage.
"It's a good start for him and I am sure his confidence will be sky high after that. It's a good way to settle him and if that has raised expectations, then so be it, but that is part of the game.
"It's a lot of money [for a teenager], of course it is. I suppose time will tell. But to start like that, you can't really ask for more."
With Wayne Rooney ruled out of the Champions League game with PSV Eindhoven in Holland tomorrow with the hamstring strain which forced him to miss the Liverpool game, Martial may yet feature from the start against the Dutch champions.
His introduction into the action changed United's approach and injected the pace and movement that had been absent with Marouane Fellaini deployed as a makeshift centre-forward.
The question mark now hanging over United and Van Gaal is whether Martial, 19, will be given the chance to provide the X-factor on a regular basis or if the more methodical approach will continue.
Against Liverpool, a turgid first half of few chances showcased United at their worst under Van Gaal against limited opponents who were seemingly bereft of confidence.
But once United clicked, after Daley Blind's 49th-minute opener as a result of well-rehearsed free-kick, the home side played with more flair and belief, culminating in their second goal, when Ander Herrera converted a penalty after being fouled by Joe Gomez.
Benteke's wondrous strike reduced the arrears before Martial sealed United's victory, which moved them into second position, if only temporarily.
"Are we?" Carrick said, when told of United's league position. "You can look at it both ways - you can say it's a good start and you can say we have dropped points.
"But we have shown signs that we have improved. It's just about that consistency."
Liverpool, meanwhile, left Old Trafford with plenty to think about. It was not just the result that was so disturbing.
Just as against West Ham United a fortnight ago, it was the manner of the defeat that was of far greater concern - the insipid way the team played without a recognised pattern.