Martial a shining light for United


Conservative qualities of that kind are the minimum expectation when you have a wage bill of £203m and the other lot's is £57m. That kind of money is supposed to buy invention, courage and football which thrills and fires the soul. There has been little of the sort from Manchester United this season and though they avoided the indignity of a coronation on their own turf for the side which has achieved so much for so much less, it was a very meagre consolation.

There were kernels of promise for their supporters, certainly. Here was another day when Anthony Martial looked worth the money: the single player in the ranks to have the champion select rocked back on their heels But the atmosphere told the real story. The Stretford End demands to “attack” which sounded towards the end were half-hearted and the cheers for the exit of Marouane Fellaini - a totem of the functional, prosaic properties this side now display - were far louder. Fellaini waved back, the irony apparently lost on him. There were signs wherever you turned of a club stumbling on, needing to find a way ahead and yet not knowing how to find it. In the back row of the directors' box, for example, where the £200,000-a-week Bastian Schweinsteiger - whose purchase has been a mistake - had settled down for the first half. He disappeared into the stadium for the half-time interval and did not re-appear after it.

There was something equally meagre in the game's 86th minute moment of controversy involving another of last summer's principal buys. Memphis Depay -relegated to the bench again -received the mildest touch from Danny Drinkwater but went cascading to the turf, when it seemed within him to keep his feet and cross. Those supporters' demands to go forth had brought little more than a Chris Smalling header by the time the final whistle sounded a few minutes later. Small change for those who had come here in the knowledge that their team was supposed to be fighting for the precious fourth Champions League place. That looks a tall order now for United. Van Gaal did not hide this. “You can do it but it shall be very difficult.”

For a brief time, it had seemed destined to be a different kind of spectacle. The balance of power in the first ten minutes conformed to the script you might have expected before Claudio Ranieri began turning convention on its head. There was that balance of age and youth, offensive and defensive dimensions in United which reinforced the sense, witnessed at Wembley last weekend, of a formula beginning to emerge for them. “Unbelievably good,” Van Gaal called that early period and it was hard to disagree.

Antonio Valencia delivered as much as any in the spell -a measured mix of defensive resilience and the attacking width which saw him cross with the right outstep for Martial's eighth-minute opener. Michael Carrick swept up: tidying and spraying passes - several to Martial down United's left, where the torment for Danny Simpson would not belong to his daydreams of returning as a would-be champion to the club which released him.

But it was a momentum which United simply could not maintain. Few in their number seem more certain to depart this summer than Marcos Rojo and we saw again why. The quality of cross he can deliver is small consolation for the distribution and the positioning which were lacking -most fatefully when Wes Morgan eased ahead of him to equalise out Martial's opening goal.

The deployment of Fellaini behind Marcus Rashford delivered what Van Gaal had expected: three leaps above the Leicester defence in the first 20 minutes, including the knock-downs for Jesse Lingard, from whom Kasper Schmeichel saved sharply: a big moment with the game at 1-0. Then came the more unpalatable Fellaini, swinging the elbow into Robert Huth's chin which could see him incur a retrospective ban. Van Gaal's claims that this had seen “one of the best matches of the season of my line-up” simply did not tally with the evidence before our eyes because beyond that Lingard chance, United's opportunities were so scarce.

The choreography of the press conferences was significant. Van Gaal protested Fellaini's innocence, even demonstrating to an interviewer how it felt it felt to have his hair pulled. Ranieiri, meanwhile, could languidly reflect on a flight to Italy on Monday to visit his 96-year-old mother, whom he frequently used as one of his props. Where did she live? he was asked. “I don't tell you,” he beamed, lest his questioner wished to be her “lover.” Even weird jokes work when you sit where Ranieri sits.

The Leicester players' departure from the field suggested that a stadium accustomed to derring-do knew which of the two sides had been agents of it. Those United supporters who had not slipped away into the cold late afternoon rose in unison to applaud the opposition, while the Leicester contingent stayed to ring their Claudio Ranieri bells and sing: “We're all going on the European tour.” It was a journey which was once part of the fixtures and fittings in this place.

That kind of money is supposed to buy invention, courage and football which thrills and fires the soul. There has been little of the sort from Manchester United this season. – The Independent

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