Juventus’ players were feeling confident when they drew Monaco in the quarterfinals of the 2014-15 Champions League, having knocked out Arsenal in the previous round. They won 1-0 in the first leg in Turin but one player stood out for Monaco, an 18-year-old forward whom few had heard of: his name is Anthony Martial.
Giorgio Chiellini was the first to comment at half-time on the young forward’s pace and skill, and the great defender felt fortunate to escape a red card for a challenge on him. Sitting on the Monaco bench was veteran striker Dimitar Berbatov. His opinion was that while his team was full of young talents, they didn’t really believe in themselves enough to win the game.
“You could see how fast and strong Martial was,” Berbatov told ESPN FC. “The only thing lacking was to be more confident. I liked playing in defence in training; it helped me understand the defenders well. Martial would come toward me with the ball. Sometimes he hesitated, he didn’t want to take me on because he thought I’d get the ball off him. The self-belief was not there. I would say ‘Anto, you are so quick, you can go past me. Don’t be afraid to do that to every player because you are so quick.'”
Monaco were more confident ahead of the second leg at home but Juventus had become nervous. However, although Martial was exceptional, Juventus’ defence was so good, soaking up all the pressure and keeping the score at 0-0. The Juventus players felt that that they could have played for another two hours and Monaco wouldn’t have scored. Chiellini was magnificent, putting his head where it hurt all the time. He simply refused to let Juventus concede a goal. How could Martial’s Monaco compete with that?
Patrice Evra sought out Anthony Martial after the game and told him how proud he was of him. They both came from Les Ulis, a tough banlieue south of Paris. Three years earlier Martial had watched Evra, then an established star with Manchester United, film an advert for Nike there.
Like Evra, Martial would rise to play for Manchester United after leaving Monaco. He joined the English side three months after those assured performances against Juventus and enjoyed an explosive start at Old Trafford, but all has not gone smoothly.
The hook, of course, is that Chiellini (now Italy and Juventus captain) and Martial are likely to meet again at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. The 34-year-old is being used more sparingly, and he stayed on the bench on Saturday as Juventus dropped league points for the first time this season with a weekend draw vs. Genoa, suggesting that he’ll start at Old Trafford.
Martial has spent too much time on the bench himself as his relationship with Jose Mourinho has become part of the United soap opera in 2018. Martial made it clear that he wanted to leave the club, knowing he has many suitors including Juventus. United, who have the player under contract, had no intention of letting that happen even when Martial left from United’s preseason tour for the birth of his child and stayed away longer than he had permission for, receiving a club fine.
Martial started only one of United’s opening six league games of the season, the wretched defeat at Brighton, but has started the last three. He scored the equaliser against Newcastle two weeks ago and both goals on Saturday in the 2-2 draw at Chelsea. It was that kind of form and finishing — Martial also scored when he started against Young Boys in the Champions League — which made it clear why the club wanted to hold on to him.
There was even a surprising display of affection from Mourinho when Martial was substituted after 84 minutes: he embraced Martial, who hugged him back. Mourinho had earlier strayed from the sidelines to pat Martial on the back for his defending. There wasn’t a United fan who didn’t welcome the sight, or Martial later saying: “Things were not tense between us to begin with. We have a player-coach relationship and I hope it will continue like that.”
But they did become tense — very tense. Mourinho was undoubtedly tough with Martial and Luke Shaw, another hugely talented youngster who Mourinho felt still had much to do to earn his complete trust. Mourinho’s body language told Martial and the world how he felt. He’d turn his back on the pitch if Martial lost possession or didn’t get back to defend.
Mourinho’s behaviour has divided opinion but there’s evidence that he called it right on both of them. Shaw signed a contract extension last week and United hope Martial will do the same. If he’s playing most weeks and reproducing the kind of form he showed on Saturday, he’s far more likely to be happier.
United do not want to sell their best young players and there is no one better or more dangerous than Martial in the final third of the pitch when he’s confident and on form. As Paul Scholes told ESPN FC last week: “It’s difficult for him [and Marcus Rashford] to find some confidence because they come in for one game only. They might not have the best game and then they’re out for three or four matches. If the team don’t play well then they’re brought back in for an hour, then left out. You never get consistency or a run of performances. That’s frustrating.”
Martial has now started four of United’s last five games and Mourinho complimented him on Tuesday when he said: “I think Martial is like the team. The team is playing fine, Martial is playing fine. It’s easier for individuals to play well when the team is playing well. He has been involved when the team played well and he played well too.”
The match against Juventus gives him a huge opportunity to make himself a first pick for the manager who has for so long doubted him.