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Martial masterclass elevates United

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Anthony Martial, left, caps a brilliant United counterattack with a goal, against Stoke City. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Manchester United kept in contention for a top-four Premier League place and gave manager Louis van Gaal a rare night of relaxation as Stoke City were outclassed at Old Trafford.

Van Gaal and his players were jeered after defeat by Southampton in their previous home game – but it was all a sharp contrast here as United, inspired by youngster Antony Martial, won at a canter.

Jesse Lingard headed in Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s perfect delivery after 14 minutes to end a shocking sequence of 11 matches without a first-half goal at home stretching over a period of eight hours 40 minutes.

Shortly after, Martial scored the goal his performance merited with a fine curled finish after a scintillating break, before setting up the third for Wayne Rooney from close range eight minutes after the break.

It was a win United’s performance fully deserved and the victory margin could have been even greater, leaving them in fifth place, five points behind fourth-placed Arsenal.

Magnificent Martial

As Manchester United have struggled through this colourless, painful season there has been one shaft of light offering real hope for the present and the future.

Anthony Martial’s £36.5m signing from Monaco, when he was only 19, in September was regarded as a gamble by Van Gaal.

On this night of rejuvenation at Old Trafford it looks even more like money well spent.

The wisdom is that the rangy youngster will end up playing as a central striker, but Van Gaal has used him regularly from wide positions and, stationed on the left flank here, he tortured Stoke’s defence and made former England defender Glen Johnson’s night a misery.

He showed all the pace and athleticism that will be an asset to United for years to come as he was a threat all night, showing wonderful technique and composure to curl in a right-foot shot for the second goal then showed calmness and vision to lay the third on a plate for Rooney.

It was his sixth goal and third assist in the league, with the promise of plenty more to come. He departed to a deserved standing ovation with 11 minutes left.

Some of United’s work in the transfer market since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson has been justifiably criticised – not a bit of it with Martial.

Relief at last for Van Gaal

Manchester United’s 64-year-old manager has been a besieged figure this season, seemingly facing a crisis and an uncertain future on a weekly basis, scrutinised once more on Monday when neighbours Manchester City announced the world’s most coveted coach, Pep Guardiola, would be joining them in the summer.

He received a subdued welcome as he made his way down the Old Trafford touchline to his technical area before kick-off, acknowledging a smattering of applause with a couple of waves.

Van Gaal was able to make the return journey at the final whistle with cheers ringing around Old Trafford after their most impressive performance in months, a display designed to support his theory that things will eventually get better.

It has been a good few days for Van Gaal, with a potentially hazardous FA Cup fourth-round trip to Derby County safely negotiated last Friday and now this convincing victory.

Old Trafford elated

When Lingard stooped to head in Borthwick-Jackson’s superb cross after 14 minutes, the roar that went around Old Trafford was tinged with relief and delight.

How United and Van Gaal needed that. The first groans of frustration had surfaced moments earlier when Chris Smalling drove into Stoke City’s half but lost momentum because of lack of movement from his team-mates – but the pressure valve was released by Lingard’s goal.

Old Trafford was in buoyant mood for the rest of game, United’s supporters able to sit back and enjoy their team exerting total control and playing with a fluency rarely seen this season.

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