Manchester United travel to Turf Moor on Saturday for an afternoon showdown with Burnley. The two clubs faced off just last month on Boxing Day, with the Lancashire-based Clarets stubbornly withstanding a second-half onslaught for a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford. Since then, though, both sides have headed in opposite directions — Burnley losing three in a row while United remain perfect so far in 2018.
But Saturday’s trip to Burnley is all about revenge, for José Mourinho and his players still feel aggrieved at December’s draw. In that match, Burnley stormed out to a 2-0 lead in the first half, including grabbing the opener after just three minutes. That dour first-half performance put United in a hole that they could not fully climb out from.
Mourinho’s double substitution at halftime boosted his side, leading to a dominant 45 minutes that might have yielded four or five goals on a better day. In particular, the Clarets defense had no answer for Jesse Lingard. His second-half brace allowed United to at least salvage a point. Expect the homegrown attacker to line up in the #10 position from the start on Saturday.
Lingard has started nine of Manchester United’s last ten Premier League matches, scoring seven goals in that span. Disregarded for so long as an inconsistent squad player, Lingard has transformed himself into an ever-present in Mourinho’s lineup.
In United’s last match, the entire playing staff looked renewed after a week of training in the Dubai sun. Antonio Valencia returned from his hamstring injury and made his presence felt immediately by uncorking a magnificent goal into the upper-left corner. Both Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku scored as well, but Paul Pogba stole the show with another masterful display in midfield.
Speaking of Pogba, the club highlighted a few interesting statistics this week that underscore the Frenchman’s immense importance to his team. With nine assists already this season, Pogba leads the top five European leagues with the best assists-to-matches played mark. Even better, Manchester United have not lost in the last 35(!) Premier League matches that Pogba has played in. No wonder the club faltered during his hamstring layoff and three-match suspension.
In defense, Ashley Young returns from his own suspension this week. This presents an interesting dilemma for the manager as to whether Young should go straight back into the starting eleven at left back or if Luke Shaw has earned the right to keep his spot. Mourinho’s choice may show what — if any — future Shaw still has at the club.
But the biggest story hanging over Saturday’s match involves a player not even on the team. It’s no secret that Manchester United are hot on the trail of Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez and his transfer could be announced at any time. It’s too early to say whether he might make his debut at Burnley — or even if the deal will go through at all — but just the thought of Sanchez in a United shirt has sparked excitement among supporters.
After an impressive start to the 2017/18 Premier League season for Burnley, the Lancashire club have fallen back to earth in the new year. Sean Dyche’s side have now lost three on the bounce and are winless in seven. The Clarets remain in seventh place — far better than anyone predicted at the start of the season — but are no longer taking opponents by surprise.
After losing last time out to Crystal Palace, Dyche defended his struggling team to the local press: “Were people expecting us to be seventh? No, so therefore we’re delivering a good season even if we’re on a bad run at the moment.”
Manchester United’s job is to make sure that bad run continues at least through the weekend.
For all the praise Burnley deservedly gets for their strong first-half of the season, their home form against top teams leaves something to be desired. In their last five matches at Turf Moor, the Clarets have lost to Arsenal, Spurs, and Liverpool. Manchester United will aim to add their name to that list on Saturday.
Burnley’s style has not changed since Boxing Day: throw bodies in front of shots, get the ball into wide positions, and bombard the opposing defense with crosses. United coped fairly well with those tactics, but came up short defending two set-pieces. Steven Defour’s audacious free kick goal serves as an important reminder to avoid needless fouls around the box.
Manchester United now sit alone in second place — and even drew closer to the top after City’s loss at Anfield. Liverpool and Chelsea, though, are just three points behind. United need to keep winning, especially with a trip to Spurs on the horizon. Burnley’s stout defense won’t make life easy on Saturday, but United — with or without a certain Chilean attacker — have the talent to get it done.