ERIK TEN HAG has waited patiently for Antony to look like an elite £82million performer.
But against a dismal, relegation-haunted Nottingham Forest, the Brazilian winger Ten Hag signed from his former club Ajax netted his first Premier League goal in six months and produced an outstanding assist for Diogo Dalot to wrap up Manchester United’s victory.
Forest might have signed 30 players since winning promotion last summer and United may be riddled with injuries – but this was one of those matches which laid bare the quality gap between the top and bottom of the league.
Steve Cooper is struggling to keep hold of his job after taking just three points from a ten-match winless run and his side lacked class and ambition as they were comprehensively outplayed.
With a six-point lead and a game in hand on fifth-placed Tottenham, Ten Hag is surely leading United back to the Champions League and can now prioritise their bid for a cup treble.
Antony showed great instincts to poke the first-half opener and then turned provider for Dalot.
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But had it not been for the heroics of Forest keeper Keylor Navas, it would have been a serious beating.
United were battered by injuries and had suffered the sickener of chucking away a 2-0 lead through a pair of late own goals against Sevilla in Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final.
With Lisandro Martinez out for the season, Raphael Varane, Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay all sidelined, Marcel Sabitzer pulled up lame in the warm-up and was replaced by Christian Eriksen.
Eriksen, though, was excellent alongside Bruno Fernandes in a midfield which was simply too good for Cooper’s men.
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Ten Hag’s men were at least buoyed by defeats for Newcastle and Tottenham, their rivals for Champions League places, on Saturday.
Forest, in freefall, needed to recapture their early-season home form as several of their fellow relegation candidates clamber towards safety but they failed abjectly to ignite the City Ground crowd.
United were almost ahead in the first minute, when a Fernandes centre was pushed out by Navas to Jadon Sancho but the winger’s shot was blocked by Felipe.
Harry Maguire was swiftly into the book for wrestling over Taiwo Awoniyi to halt a Forest break – the England man was fuming with ref Simon Hooper but he was bang to rights.
David De Gea was limping early on and Maguire was being derided as a ‘Leicester reject’ as he sent a routine pass into touch.
But Fernandes soon let one rip and forced a flying save from Navas after some nifty footwork from Antony.
United were looking ragged at the back early on, Dalot’s shocking back-pass conceded a corner from which Maguire appeared to handle with an out-stretched arm but neither Hooper nor his VAR Tony Harrington thought it was a penalty.
So there was early hope for the Tricky Trees – and after Maguire had conceded a corner, Scott McKenna connected with the post, although he’d used his arm in doing so.
But suddenly United seemed to flick a switch and ambushed Forest for the opener.
It was Antony Martial who won an opportunistic tackle to rob Danilo, Fernandes playing a cute pass to feed the French striker, whose shot was pushed out by Navas but Antony darted ahead of Renan Lodi to poke home at the back post.
The Brazilian winger hadn’t scored in the Premier League for more than six months, although he celebrated with a smug pose which suggested he’d been banging them in every week.
Awoniyi was presented with an excellent chance just before the break after a dozy Fernandes pass turned attack into defence for United and another poor ball from Dalot inadvertently fed the Forest striker, who thrashed his shot over.
Fernandes then thudded a free header wide from an excellent Eriksen centre.
Forest hadn’t been committing too many bodies forward in the opening half but straight after the restart, wing-back Neco Williams burst forward and his centre struck Dalot on the foot, then an arm – but again the officials were unmoved.
Antony, though, curled a shot narrowly wide and Fernandes blasted one from out on the left flank which Navas brilliantly turned onto the post.
Soon, Navas was clawing one away at his near post from Fernandes and Forest were wilting badly, only their Costa Rican keeper averting a serious drubbing.
Martial sent a header wide from a Casemiro cross and then made way for Wout Weghorst.
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United had been threatening the second goal for a long stretch by the time Antony darted in from the right and played a sweet reverse pass to release Dalot, who thundered forward from left-back to lash past Navas.
Forest had offered embarrassingly little and Ten Hag was now able to relax and prepare for United’s cup ties at Sevilla and against Brighton in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.
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