Martial steps into Rashford’s shoes to edge Man United closer to UCL

MANCHESTER, England — Manchester United took another step towards qualifying for the Champions League with a 2-0 win over Wolves at Old Trafford.

Anthony Martial and substitute Alejandro Garnacho got the goals as United bounced back from consecutive defeats to Brighton and West Ham to boost their hopes of a top-four finish with just three games remaining. Erik ten Hag’s team dominated the game and had 27 shots but converted only two, with Garnacho’s goal to make the game safe not arriving until the fourth minute of injury time.

Wolves, meanwhile, couldn’t manage a shot on target as United kept another clean sheet at Old Trafford in the league.

After back-to-back losses, United needed to beat Wolves and they did, but it wasn’t convincing. It was perhaps to be expected, given this fixture hadn’t been decided by more than a one-goal margin for more than a decade, but for some United fans at Old Trafford, it will be a case of the same old story.

Ten Hag’s team had chances to make the result safe but didn’t get the second goal until deep into stoppage time. It was only then that Wolves gave up hope of snatching a late equaliser. The good news for Ten Hag is that it’s now six Premier League clean sheets in a row at Old Trafford, United’s best run since managing seven in succession between December 2009 and March 2010. The last team to score here in the league was Leeds United all the way back in February.

The bad news, though, is that United are still struggling to score, and they would have had more here had they been clinical. Victory over Wolves is at least a step towards guaranteeing a top-four finish. With Liverpool breathing down their necks, two more wins from their final three games will secure Champions League football.

– How Premier League clubs can qualify for Europe

You never know what you’re going to get with Martial, and it was fitting that, when United published their team sheet an hour before kick-off, the Frenchman was listed as being in the starting XI and on the bench. He probably wouldn’t have started had Marcus Rashford been fit and available, but given a chance at centre forward, Martial scored United’s crucial first goal.

It had everything to do with Bruno Fernandes’ surging run from midfield and Antony’s decision to square his pass rather than shoot, but Martial was in the right place at the right time to score his eighth goal of the season and his first in more than a month. He would have more had he not spent most of the campaign out injured, but now that he’s fit he has four games — including June’s FA Cup final against Manchester City — to convince Ten Hag he deserves to stay this summer.

Ten Hag has already made a striker his top priority in the transfer window, while United will listen to offers for a number of squad players, including captain Harry Maguire. Martial, who has a year left on his contract, is in a group of players whose futures have not yet been decided, and his performances between now and the end of the season could swing Ten Hag’s decision either way.

Wolves were in the relegation zone when Julen Lopetegui was appointed manager in November, and despite defeat at Old Trafford, he has guided them to safety with games to spare. It’s never easy being parachuted into a job with a struggling team midseason, but Wolves have had some big wins since the turn of the year, against Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Aston Villa.

With money to spend in the transfer window and a full preseason with his players, Lopetegui will be targeting a better campaign at Molineux. Nuno Espirito Santo got Wolves to the Europa League quarterfinals in 2020 — a run that was ended by Lopetegui’s Sevilla — and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be challenging for a place in Europe under the former Real Madrid boss.

Villa, Brighton, Brentford and Fulham have shown this season that, with sound recruitment and a good manager, there are places in the Premier League’s top eight up for grabs. Wolves will be happy to keep their place in the top flight, particularly after such a poor start to the season, but expectation under Lopetegui will be raised over the summer and they should be setting their sights higher.

BEST: Bruno Fernandes, MF, Man United: Lots of energy and was involved in both United’s goals.

BEST: Daniel Bentley, GK, Wolves: Making his Premier League debut, he made a wonderful low save to deny Jadon Sancho.

BEST: Antony, FW, Man United: His decision-making wasn’t always the best, but he got into some good positions and made the first goal for Martial.

WORST: Toti, DF, Wolves: Completely lost Antony in the build-up to United’s opener, allowing Fernandes to play a simple through ball.

WORST: Diego Costa, ST, Wolves: Booked early for a poor challenge on Antony and didn’t threaten at the other end.

WORST: Jadon Sancho, FW, Man United: Another game that passed him by before he got substituted early.

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag speaking to “BBC Match of the Day”: “We had a tough week. Three days ago we dropped important points because of individual mistakes but also low energy levels. That can’t be [acceptable]. Today we bounced back.

“Tiredness can never be an excuse. As a Man Utd player, you have to deliver. You have to match high standards, give the performance, and take the responsibility as an individual and as a team.”

On making the top four: “[Winning today,] it means nothing if you are not in the top three or four. We have to fight for that. We have to stay calm, stay focussed and go to the next game. We need to make sure we have the right energy levels so we can fight and make sure we get it over the line.

“In terms of the way we play, I think we have a base. Also in the culture, we have a base. But we know we have to make those next steps for really competing with the top two.”

On squad planning for next season: “It’s not up to me, it is an aspect of the club that other people deal with, the owners. I have to develop and to progress the team, and to of course plan. I will go for high standards, so I am planning my squad for next season in the background, with high standards. Then it is up to the others to decide if the finances are there.”

Anthony Martial: 61 career Premier League goals for Man United, 1 shy of tying David Beckham for the 10th most in club’s history.

Manchester United entered today with a 78% chance of qualifying for the 2023-24 Champions League. After the win against Wolves, that number jumped up to 89%.

Manchester United: The Red Devils have three matches remaining in their quest for Champions League football. They travel to Bournemouth on Saturday, May 20, then finish up with home games against Chelsea (May 25) and Fulham (May 28).

Wolves: Just two games remain, with a home fixture against Everton on Saturday, May 20, and a trip to Arsenal on the final day.

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