Manchester United 3 Burnley 1
To borrow a phrase from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, stranger things have happened.
His Manchester United team were 17 points from the top of the Premier League a fortnight ago, but that deficit has been more than halved. Their noisy neighbours are still in control of the title race and counting down the wins until they are crowned, but at least Solskjaer’s team are applying a little pressure and making them work for it.
United had to grind out this victory and needed goals from Mason Greenwood either side of James Tarkowski’s equaliser for Burnley. Edinson Cavani’s late strike added gloss to the scoreline and helped take advantage of Manchester City playing in the FA Cup at the weekend.
City know from history that eight points ahead with six games left can be a tricky lead. They were chasing in 2012 when United held that advantage, and it culminated in the greatest finale to a season.
“It’s probably unrealistic, but stranger things have happened in football,” Solskjaer said. “We just have to do our job. I am proud that we never give up, and we have proven so many times this season our fitness and resilience. We came back last week, we scored three goals. We scored three goals in the second half again. Our fitness and belief has improved this year.”
Solskjaer revealed he only found out about United’s plan to join a breakaway European super league on the afternoon of the game. His wide-eyed responses to questions about the “big six’s” plans suggested this was genuine.
For much of this victory they were not playing like a footballing superpower. In fact, they looked prone to succumbing to Chris Wood’s physicality and a Sean Dyche team who had a good record on United’s turf.
The difference came in the second half with Marcus Rashford and Greenwood giving Gareth Southgate food for through heading into the European Championships.
Rashford started as a centre-forward and dropped a few hints that he could be a back-up No 9 to Harry Kane should the England captain need a breather.
Greenwood must now be in the thinking for a call-up after five goals in his last six appearances.
“I’m happy that I’m playing a lot,” Greenwood said. “Ole trusts me and I want to help my team-mates, and it’s showing out there on the pitch.”
United broke the deadlock after the interval with a goal created by Rashford’s 40-yard dribble with the ball glued to his feet, plus a dummy from Bruno Fernandes that turned the Burnley defence without using a touch.
Rashford’s run saw him nutmeg Matthew Lowton before heading towards the penalty area and delivering a cross. Fernandes casually left the ball, allowing Greenwood to finish.
Solskjaer had suggested the red canvas covering empty seats had hindered his players earlier in the season, but they seemed to clearly know where team-mates were with the change to black.
The foundations were laid for a routine victory, but Burnley have enjoyed some recent success at the Theatre of Dreams, getting results in their previous five visits.
They were level within two minutes with a straightforward set-piece goal that Dyche has practised thousands of times on the training ground.
Ashley Westwood swung over the corner and Tarkowski escaped the attention of Aaron Wan-Bissaka before climbing above Harry Maguire to head into the top corner.
Greenwood put United in front again after Paul Pogba chipped the ball out to the left flank following a partially cleared corner. The England U-21 forward cut inside and his shot flicked off Jack Cork into the near post.
“I like to cut in like that, I did it a lot last season and I’m doing it a bit now, but you have to mix it up or defenders will be on you, but it is a good trait I have,” Greenwood said. “It was a good shot and going on target, so there was no doubt for me that it was my goal. It’s taken a deflection, but it favoured me.”
Donny van de Beek, on his 24th birthday, came on to set up fellow substitute Cavani with a tap-in during stoppage time to wrap up the win.
The only concern was Rashford hobbling slightly as he left the pitch, but Solskjaer says it was not an injury.
“I asked him how he was because he played so well he was trying to force the 90 minutes, but he said he was too sore,” he said. “It is just pain that comes after he has played for 60 or 70 minutes, he lasted for 80 so that was progress. In the second half he played so well. In the end Donny had to come on.”
For Burnley, a significant moment came earlier in the day when Fulham conceded a last-gasp equaliser at Arsenal to dent their hopes of dragging Dyche’s team into the relegation fight.
They are six points clear of the relegation zone and are still looking over their shoulder, but will be encouraged by the amount of game-time they held United. “I wouldn’t like to disrespect them because they are a top side, but a closer affair than the scoreline suggests for sure,” said Dyche.
“We defended very well, which you have to do. We were effective and asked questions of them when we put the ball in their box. Chris Wood was excellent.
“I thought we were seeing the game out well and might have had the chance to nick it, and then they get one out of the blue. It is a double deflection, one off Charlie Taylor and one off Corky.
“Over a season you need your scratches of luck. I will have a look at it another time. We were delivering a very strong performance, defending very well, and then it goes against you. You have to open up to get back in it, and they get a third on the breakaway. The performance was very good.”
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