Ahead of Thursday's derby against Manchester City, Manchester United moved to within a point of their fourth-placed neighbours with an almost-problem-free win over Burnley.
In the absence of the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo, and in the wake of extra time against Anderlecht, Jose Mourinho shuffled his squad. Wayne Rooney returned to make his first start in months, Anthony Martial slotted in up front, and Daley Blind took up central defensive duties.
If there's one thing a much-changed team could want in a potentially tricky away game, it's an early goal. And if there's one thing Jose Mourinho could have asked for, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic out for the season, it's a return to form for Anthony Martial. Conveniently for everybody, then, it was the Frenchman who opened the scoring after 20 minutes, and in quite some style too.
After United repelled a Burnley set piece, Martial, loitering inside his own half, smuggled the ball past Joey Barton. As the youngster streaked away, the Burnley midfielder decided — for once — not to stick out a foot, and was punished for his lack of cynicism. Martial nudged the ball right to Ander Herrera, received a first-time return pass, and slipped a deft left-footed finish past the advancing Tom Heaton. A well-crafted counter-attacking goal, just like United used to make.
United took control on the game from then on. With Marouane Fellaini deputised to follow Ashley Barnes around and contest any long balls, Burnley lacked their preferred front-to-back outlet, and were limited to half-chances from set pieces. Elsewhere on the pitch they looked unusually sloppy, and it was a defensive lapse that handed United their second goal.
A poor header from Robbie Brady outside his own box fell to Paul Pogba, who evaded two with a quick shift of his feet and weight, then tapped a pass to Martial on the left side of the box. He took the ball to the byline and, though Heaton blocked his shot, the ball ran loose across the six yard box. Rooney arrived, swiped, and just about forced the ball over the line, with a little help from Michael Keane and a deflection. If there's one thing a returning, out of favour captain could want ...
That two-goal lead didn't just give Rooney a rare chance to celebrate. It also meant that the second half became a question of control rather than a contest, and United responded by closing the game out in professional style. Pogba and Ander Herrera directed the midfield, Eric Bailly was dominant at the back, and Martial, Lingard, and later Rashford were a constant threat.
The only sour notes came just before the end, when Pogba limped off, gesturing towards his hamstring, and Bailly seemed to sustain a knock. But injuries aside, this was precisely the kind of comfortable, competent victory that has eluded United this season. Mourinho will be well satisfied with the three points, even if his next team sheet might not be quite so straightforward.