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Anthony Martial’s struggles give Edinson Cavani chance to stake his Manchester United claim

The questions about Anthony Martial’s best position were supposed to have been answered by now but as Manchester United prepare for a long and gruelling winter, his season is yet to get off the ground.

Martial came into this campaign on the back of the most prolific year of his Old Trafford career, having been deployed as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s trusted central No 9 rather than shunted out to the left wing.  

His 23 goals surpassed his promising debut season four years earlier and were enough to convince the key decision-makers at Old Trafford not to move for another young and long-term option up front, despite January’s failed pursuit of a teenage Erling Haaland.  

Instead, in came a 33-year-old. The signing of Edinson Cavani was met with much scepticism and his arrival on deadline day hardly spoke to a long and considered process behind the pursuit.  

And if Cavani can prove his fitness after missing 17 games for Paris Saint-Germain last term through injury, he could eventually make the position his own.  

Solskjaer prefers pace up front and the Uruguayan's explosiveness has declined with age but his movement and goal-poaching instincts have not dimmed. Martial is yet to consistently show the same sort of natural intuition as a No 9 and, consequently, might be feeling the heat.  

The France international is yet to score a Premier League goal this term and, though he has fared better in the Champions League, it would be no surprise to see Cavani handed his first start for the visit of Istanbul Basaksehir on Tuesday night.

Solskjaer attributed Martial’s slow start to the lack of a pre-season and the three-match suspension which followed his sending off against Tottenham. “He's lost too much football,” he said, and Solskjaer has always defended a player who received a contract extension within weeks of his appointment.

Nevertheless, there was a quiet reminder to Martial that no United player can afford to stand still.  

“Anthony last season showed he made big strides,” Solskjaer said, believing that Martial had demonstrated that he can be a prolific No 9. “Now it's time again to make even bigger strides, to develop more.

“He scored 23 goals last season, which was a big return. Every season is a challenge and you cannot rest on your laurels as a left-back, right-back or centre-forward at Man United. There are demands on every position. We want Anthony to kick on.

“For me it's him getting chances, that is the big thing,” he added. “His conversion rate has always been good. Maybe at the moment ‘keepers are making a good few saves against him but that will change.”

Whoever starts up front, Solskjaer will hope his defence avoids a repeat of their shambolic display in Istanbul three weeks ago.  

Progression to the knock-out stages appeared as though it would be a formality after the victories over two of last season’s semi-finalists in Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig and United remain well-placed, but that 2-0 setback away to Basaksehir has left Group H is delicately poised at the halfway stage.  

Each of its four teams could end the night on six points with two games remaining and, in that scenario, United would already have played the lowest-ranked side twice. Even with Solskjaer’s strange knack of picking up results when least expected, anything less than a win tonight will put qualification in serious jeopardy.

How important is victory, then? “It's always a great question, that,” Solskjaer teased. “The short answer is ‘very’, but of course we know the consolation of the group.

Cavani is pushing Anthony Martial for a Manchester United start

“We need at least 10 points to go through definitely, maybe it’s even likely that you have to have 12 points so we're going to go into this game trying to win it and try to win it well with a good performance, because we have got games coming thick and fast. Getting to ten points as quickly as you can was the main point but that defeat was a big blow last time.”

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s win with a knock but came through a training session at Carrington on Monday and will be assessed before kick-off while Mason Greenwood could also return after missing United’s last two through illness.

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