Only one Man United player can win the World Cup but two of their most influential players this season could play in the final..
Should France turn Morocco’s carriage into a pumpkin, it would be fitting if Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez are Manchester United’s participants in the World Cup final.
Martinez is the only outfield player who has started all 13 of United’s Premier League games so far this season and the recall of Varane against Liverpool signalled the momentum shift.
United elected Varane to stop in the mixed zone that heady and humid August evening at Old Trafford that started with an angry mob marching around Old Trafford and ended with them almost levitating out of the stadium.
Varane and Martinez celebrated Marcus Rashford’s goal together, the former then heading over to the touchline to refuel. Martinez initially settled for clutching Tyrell Malacia by the face though eventually embraced Rashford.
‘Glory glory Man United’ was played at the interval that night. A tad premature, but Varane and Martinez underpinned United’s recovery nine days on from encountering Brentford’s bruisers and belief had been restored.
I really enjoyed it on the pitch tonight – the atmosphere, the spirit of the team,” Varane explained. “I came to England to feel these emotions after everything I left in Madrid, and this feeling was amazing. Absolutely amazing.
“The crowd, the fans and the fight on the pitch was amazing. Absolutely. I enjoyed it.”
That night was also the making of Martinez in a United shirt. Thirty-six seconds in, he literally stood up to Mohamed Salah and the Egyptian played as though Joe Pesci had just picked a fight with him.
“He brings to the team his determination, his motivation and, yeah, he has this mentality, this fighting spirit,” Varane said of Martinez. “He showed it tonight.”
Martinez is Varane’s biggest fan on his Instagram page. The last read “Raphael Crackane” – crack the term of endearment Spanish-speaking players reserve for esteemed teammates. Martinez had already dubbed Varane a ‘legend’ and his ‘brother’. “What a pleasure to play by your side,” he informed Varane after their second competitive start.
The ‘brothers’ could be divided at the Lusail Stadium on Sunday. Should France advance to their second successive World Cup final then United are certain to herald their fifth winner after Sir Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles, John Connelly and Paul Pogba.
As unedifying as Argentina’s antics were against the Dutch, Martinez was the most caring in consoling Varane as he buried his head in his shirt and limped off the Stamford Bridge pitch in October, fearing injury would deny him a third World Cup appearance.
Martinez has started in five of United’s six games since and there has been only one loss. The 24-year-old has recorded clean sheets beside Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire and the £55.3million Argentine is United’s player of the season so far.
It is a quirk of Argentina’s World Cup campaign that coach Lionel Scaloni dropped Cristian Romero for Martinez in response to the shock defeat to Saudi Arabia, Martinez performed commandingly against Mexico, only Romero replaced him for the final group game against a tepid Poland.
Martinez has left his mark, foiling Aziz Behich at 2-1 against Australia and lining up against the Netherlands in that quarrelsome quarter-final.
Of the storied centre-backs who touched down in the Doha desert, Varane is the one who has not packed his bags. Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Virgil van Dijk, Ruben Dias and Antonio Rudiger remain pretenders to Varane.
Briefly the fourth choice centre half at United in the summer, there have not been four centre-backs better than Varane in recent months. United have only lost three times all year with Varane on the pitch, a statistic admittedly skewed by his injury lay-offs, but still a reflection of his presence and pedigree.