WOLFSBURG: Louis van Gaal, the Manchester United manager, has thrown a -protective arm around the -misfiring -striker Anthony Martial ahead of his side's Champions League -decider against Wolfsburg, in an -effort to ease the pressure threatening to crush the young Frenchman.
Martial, the most expensive teenager in world football when he moved to Manchester from Monaco for pounds 36 million in August, had a brilliant start to his United career but is struggling to cope now that he has lost the element of surprise.
With Wayne Rooney missing the trip to Germany because of an -injury, Martial's performances are under even more scrutiny. United have failed to score in five of their past nine games and if Martial is -going to justify his reputation as one of the best young strikers in world football, these are the crunch games he has to impress in.
Martial has scored five goals in 17 appearances this season, but only one in his last 13 and has not got his name on the scoresheet since the 1-1 draw with CSKA Moscow on Oct 21.
"I think he is very talented," Van Gaal, who forged his reputation as a manager in Holland with a brilliant young side at Ajax, said. "But we have to say, also, that he is just 20-years-old and we have to give him time. That's always difficult when you are playing for a team like Man-chester United because the expectations are very high, but I'm -convinced he should continue [in the team] and he will score at the right moment again. You cannot -expect that a 20-year-old, in his first year in the Premier League, scores every week.
"I didn't expect that when he came. He was exceeding expectations at the start of his career at Man United and I know that. I have to explain that. He doesn't need that pressure to score in every match."
He might not need it, but it comes with the territory. If United fail to beat Wolfsburg at the Volkswagen Arena, they will have to hope that CSKA Moscow defeat PSV Eindhoven in order to cling on to second spot in Group B. Should they fall short, it will be the first time United have not progressed from their group since 2011. Whatever -happens, they must score tonight.
"You never know for sure, but I have the experience as a manager to know the goals will come," Van Gaal, who has sold so many strikers since he took charge in 2014 that Martial is the only specialist striker now fit, said. "When you are creating chances, you will start finishing them. We have that belief, it's just a matter of time and I hope we can prove that tomorrow night."
Senior sources at Old Trafford have indicated that Van Gaal's job will not be under threat if they miss out on qualifying for the knockout stage.
Indeed, the club seem to be of the view that -finishing in the top four in the Premier League is all that really matters this season and the Dutchman remains on course to achieve that objective, despite growing claims he has turned -United into a dull team to watch. A defeat in Germany and demotion to the Europa League would be a disappointment rather than a disaster.
Van Gaal, 64, is seemingly doing enough to sit securely in the manager's chair, shielded from criticism by his unflinching self-belief and the indications from above that the board want him to, at the very least, see out the remaining two years on his contract. That is not to say that a defeat would not wound him. -United used to qualify for the knockout stage habitually and Van Gaal has suggested in the past that he expects to restore the club to the summit of European football before he is due to retire in June 2017.
"At this moment, this is the most important match because it's very important for the club to continue in the Champions League," he said. "The players want to show their qualities against the highest opponents. Yes, I have the desire to win the Champions League again, of course. As a manager I have played three finals, that's a lot I think. I've won one and lost two, always when you lose you are so close, it's so -disappointing."
There was bad news for the -midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, who has been charged with violent conduct by the Football Association following a clash with West Ham's Winston Reid during the -frustrating goalless draw last Saturday. He is facing a three-match suspension and has until Thursday to appeal.
However, the German is adamant that United are on course to ensure his first season in England is a -successful one. "We are three points off the top of the Premier League and we have a chance to move into the next phase of the Champions League," Schweinsteiger said.