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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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The France international netted a first professional treble against Sheffield United as the Red Devils’ five-man creative unit put on a show

When Manchester United took on Tottenham on Friday evening, cries of “get in the box” were directed at Anthony Martial by his team-mates as the France international struggled to make much of an impact in north London.

It may have taken five days, but on Wednesday at Old Trafford it seemed Martial had taken the advice on board as he put in the kind of instinctive performance that will have United fans believing that their new-look attacking machine does indeed have the right frontman leading them.

Much of the excitement ahead of kick-off centred around Martial’s compatriot Paul Pogba after he was named in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s starting line-up for the first time since September 30.

Pogba certainly made the difference when coming off the bench against Spurs, with his combination play alongside Bruno Fernandes in particular catching the eye. And though the ex-Juventus man did not make the headlines this time around, he formed part of a five-man unit that tore Chris Wilder’s side to shreds at times.

Fernandes and Pogba continued to build an understanding in midfield, while ahead of them, Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood interchanged positions effortlessly to pull the Blades’ defence one way and then the other.

If the quintet can all remain fit then they are a match for any other attack in the Premier League and after seven years of clubs arriving at the Theatre of Dreams with belief that they can cause an upset, the fear factor might be about to return.

United needed just seven minutes to open the scoring in their second match back following the resumption of top-flight football, as Rashford powered a cut-back across the six-yard box for Martial to slide in and direct into the roof of the net.

It was a true striker’s finish, and Martial further illustrated his ability in the No.9 role as he swept home a low cross from Aaron Wan-Bissaka to double United’s lead a minute before half-time. Of course, Pogba and Fernandes were both involved in the build-up.

Martial has spoken previously of how much he has enjoyed working under a proven goalscorer in Solskjaer, and in a campaign where he has enjoyed his best-ever season in front of goal in the Premier League, it is easy to see that lessons are being learned.

Despite the Red Devils leading 2-0 at the break, the scoreline flattered Sheffield United. Rashford did well to miss the target having been played in by Martial following a flowing counter-attack before the England international again fluffed his lines after some delightful build-up play that included a Fernandes back-heel and chipped Pogba through-ball.

Solskjaer’s side picked up where they left off after the break, with Martial firing a wild drive high and wide after Pogba had danced through the visitors’ defence in a run that included a delightful nutmeg of half-time substitute Sander Berge.

In the reverse fixture at Bramall Lane in November, United had played some of their worst football of the season as they fought back from 2-0 down to earn a dramatic 3-3 draw. But here they played some wonderful stuff, and it was unfortunate that the only ‘fans’ in attendance were the 40,000 supporters who had sent their photos to be used as part of the seat wraps that now adorn the otherwise empty Old Trafford stands.

Perhaps the best move of the match brought them their third goal of the evening. Pogba drilled a ball through the lines into Fernandes, who in turn used the outside of his foot to turn the pass around the corner into Martial.

From there he traded passes with Rashford before delicately chipping his shot over goalkeeper Simon Moore to wrap up his first career hat-trick as well as the first scored by a United player since Robin van Persie’s treble against Aston Villa secured the Premier League title in April 2013.

It was telling that Solskjaer chose to replace his five flair players at once with 12 minutes left on the clock, with the Norwegian clearly aware of their importance when it comes to securing Champions League football for next season.

Victory leaves United two points adrift of Chelsea in fourth ahead of the Blues’ clash with Manchester City on Thursday, but with Wolves only behind them by virtue of goal difference this is far from a two-horse race.

Martial led the quintet off, and for a player who has in the past been criticised for his miserable demeanour, it was difficult to wipe the grin off his face.

After that performance, he had plenty to smile about.

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