When Anthony Martial pulled up in the warm-up ahead of Manchester United’s Europa League tie against Midtylland in February 2016, it thrust Marcus Rashford into the Old Trafford spotlight.
Rashford, then a raw and untested 18-year-old, was handed a massive opportunity to kick-start his United career. He seized it with a sangfroid that belied his tender years, scoring a memorable brace, and hasn’t looked back since.
Martial’s injury exposed Louis van Gaal’s lack of attacking options and, although the club and cast are different, Antonio Conte is faced with a similar situation at Chelsea now that Alvaro Morata faces six weeks on the sidelines.
Chelsea fans reacted to the news that Morata had a grade two hamstring injury with understandable despair. And rightly so – Morata has scored six goals in seven Premier League appearances during his impressive initiation at Stamford Bridge.
Alvaro Morata has scored exactly 50% of Chelsea's 12 goals in the Premier League this season.
7 games 🏃
6 goals ⚽️
4 in September. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/jA7Ku6Qpg4
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 6, 2017
Conte is right to agonise over losing his goalscorer-in-chief, but this needn’t hinder the Blues’ title defence as the Italian still has Michy Batshuayi to call upon.
The Belgian, who turned 24 on Monday, was snubbed by Conte when Morata pulled up with a hamstring injury in the 35th minute. Instead, the Italian manager sent on Willian, who struggled to assert himself playing in an unfamiliar position up top.
Although Batshuayi came on with 20 minutes to go, there is a sense that Conte does not trust him. There are lingering suspicions that Conte, in some kind of underhanded message to his superiors at Stamford Bridge, deliberately left Batshuayi on the bench to express his opinion on his current striking options.
However, while Batshuayi hasn’t exactly been pulling up trees in West London since joining from Marseille in a £33m deal in July last year, some of his contributions have been hugely significant.
Last year, as Chelsea chased down the Premier League crown, it was the Belgian striker who came off the bench to score the title-clinching strike against West Brom. More recently, Batshuayi finished a sweeping move to give the Blues a last-gasp Champions League victory away to Atletico Madrid.
With that, the forward perhaps has a valid claim to playing a more prominent role in the side having been directly involved in two of Conte’s finest moments in England and, while the idea of usurping Morata as Conte’s first-choice striker seems faintly ridiculous, it’s high time the Belgian consistently demonstrated his pedigree at this level.
The prevailing perception of Batshuayi is that he is straying dangerously to being pegged as an ‘impact player.’ Admittedly, many of his best moments have come during late cameos in games, including the aforementioned double for Chelsea, and scoring with his first touch at Euro 2016 to set up a quarter-final clash with Wales.
However, while his blistering pace and finishing mark him out as a player best suited to hurting teams when games are stretched late on, his ambitions are undoubtedly loftier than waiting for Conte to turn around to the bench and give a nod in his direction.
Of course, unlike Rashford – who had nothing to prove – Batshuayi must dispel the myth that he is effective only as an impact player. Indeed, he scored against Qarabag in the Champions League on his first start of the season, while he netted a hat-trick in the 5-1 EFL Cup win over Nottingham Forest a week later.
There is evidence, albeit against lower-grade opposition, that Batshuayi is capable of deputising for Morata. Confidence is arguably the most important and elusive ingredient in any striker’s toolkit, but Batshuayi has previously proven himself to be a devastating marksman capable of hot streaks.
When he was making a name for himself at the Stade Velodrome, the Belgian showed a ruthless edge in front of goal. During a star-making 2015/16 campaign, he scored 23 times in 50 games. Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexandre Lacazette and Edinson Cavani found the net more times than him in Ligue 1 that term.
However, those three strikers played for Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon, who finished first and second respectively that season, making Batshuayi’s haul with 13th-placed Marseille seem all the more impressive. This season, he’s offered exciting snapshots of his halcyon days in the south of France, managing a goal every 67.6 minutes.
4 – In 2017, no player has scored more sub goals for a PL club in all competitions than Michy Batshuayi (4, level with Giroud). Winner. pic.twitter.com/uH4qlFwZ7k
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 27, 2017
As for his struggles to break into this Chelsea side, Batshuayi was admirably magnanimous when asked recently about being overlooked in the City game.
“What disappointed me was our defeat to Manchester City, not my personal situation,” he told DH. “The coach congratulates me often because he knows my commitment on a daily basis. Thanks to him, I have progressed tactically.”
“Before, I didn’t think about all that, but I’ve progressed… just like the rest of the squad. In terms of self-discipline and motivation, I’m also stronger.”
His comments highlighted how Conte does not think he is a lost cause by any stretch.
The coach is working with him, giving him detailed tactical instructions and monitoring his progress. Now, with games against Crystal Palace and Roma in the next two weeks, Batshuayi has the perfect opportunity to prove to Conte that his words have not fallen on deaf ears.
“If I’m called on, I want to be ready. I’m an efficient striker, but I’m not a joker,” he later told Sky Sports.
Chelsea fans certainly hope he’s more ‘Batsman’ than Joker in the coming weeks.
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