It was an encounter shaping up like so many other Manchester United matches this season; the home side dominated possession, missed chances and lost a sloppy goal. Until Marcus Rashford stepped forward that is. On Thursday the Reds once again managed to turn a fixture that should have been routine into an evening when fans held their collective breath. In the end, José Mourinho’s side secured passage into the Europa League semi-final at the expense of RSC Anderlecht, thanks largely to the heroics of a 19-year-old with the world at his feet. But as has been the case for United this season, there is little time to stop and reflect as the side returns to league action at Burnley.
“The stadium was full of real support and it looks like the love people have for this club is bigger than bad results. We must give something back.” José Mourinho’s words were part of what seemed liked a humble apology in the wake of last weekend’s thrashing by Chelsea. In the end, his side secured a much-needed win over rivals Manchester City in the League Cup. Old Trafford offered its unwavering support, and Mourinho humbly bowed to supporters in seeking forgiveness.
If Louis van Gaal’s start at Manchester United has been anything but auspicious then few will blame the veteran Dutchman for seeking a little help from above. Requests of the Divine are common in football, of course, although it is to a far more potent force that United turned this week: money. Ángel Di Maria’s calling may not have been Old Trafford until recent days, but the £59.7 million that United paid for the Argentinian proved to be an intervention to break weeks of negotiation deadlock. Signed for a British record fee, it is no exaggeration to assume Di Maria will be pinned as United’s saviour from the off.
The 26-year-old Argentine brushed off suggestions that United’s extravagant outlay places the new acquisition under increased pressure. Yet, the fee eclipses the total Saturday’s opponent Burnley has spent in the 132-year history of the club. One of England’s oldest at that. Such is the polarisation of income in the Premier League.
The Reds’ vast revenue and newly unrestricted wallet should push Van Gaal’s side back towards domestic ascendancy in the years to come. For the time being Van Gaal has just a single draw to show for three dismal performances from his team this season. Defeat to Swansea City on the Premier League’s opening day was concerning and the draw at Sunderland unfortunate, but nothing in recent memory is quite as desperate as United’s 4-0 hammering at Milton Keynes Dons last Tuesday. Fringe players and youth dominated Van Gaal’s selection, but this was a still side containing seven full internationals. Van Gaal expressed no surprise, but it shocked supporters that the Reds embarrassment of riches was so easily humiliated by the decade-old third division side.
Di Maria cannot fix all the ills so vividly demonstrated at stadium:mk but the hugely expensive import will certainly add guile, pace and penetration in the final third. These are three qualities that the Reds have seemingly lacked this season despite the attacking talents available to United’s new coach.
More than £120 million has been spent by United in the transfer window to date, although Van Gaal’s squad remains absent a tough-tackling midfielder and experienced central defender. These are weaknesses that United may fix with yet more spending before the transfer window shuts on Monday night. Then, says the Dutchman, United’s resurrection is a factor of time and his own talents.
“We have to look at the future. We are doing that now with Manchester United by restoring and rebuilding a new team. That takes time,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“I am sorry to say that for the fans because they are amazing, in my opinion. We were at MK Dons and lost 4-0 and they were singing and supporting the players. I think it is fantastic that we have such fans. I hope we shall fulfil their expectations but it is not done in one month, in spite of our wins against Real Madrid or Liverpool. Of course, we have to win and give results. Hopefully we will start on Saturday at Burnley.”
Di Maria is almost certain to start after the veteran coach declared his new acquisition “ready to play” this weekend. Whether Van Gaal includes the record signing alongside Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata – or drops one of his star men – will be one of the talking points of the weekend. The pedestrian nature of United’s performances, especially against Swansea and Sunderland, suggests the Dutchman’s team will benefit greatly from the injection of Di Maria’s dynamic talent.
“He has impressed me,” Van Gaal told MUTV on Friday. “The first training session was with all the boys and he was very impressive. The second was a little bit less so but he has to adapt to the culture and the players with whom he shall play. It is the other way around also: the United players have to adapt to his way of playing.
“He has a lot of hunger to play because he wants to support Manchester United. He said it in the press conference. He is a very modest guy. He wants to work for the team. He is ready to play..”
The Argentinian’s countryman Marcos Rojo misses out having failed to secure a work permit in time for the visit to Turf Moor. Shinji Kagawa may have played his last game for United after suffering a concussion at MK Dons, with former club Borussia Dortmund reportedly willing to pay £8 million for the Japanese international. Meanwhile, Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw, Rafael da Silva, Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick, Jesse Lingard and Ander Herrera miss the game through injury.
Injury problems in midfield and defence leave Van Gaal with few options in the Dutchman’s preferred 3-4-1-2 system. While Jonny Evans suffered a difficult match at MK Dons, Van Gaal may be loath to once again expose the inexperienced Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane in an unfamiliar back three. Shortages in midfield mean that either Phil Jones or Adnan Januzaj could line up alongside two of Darren Fletcher, Di Maria or Juan Mata in central areas.
Either way United will need to be both more penetrative in attack and secure in defence at Turf Moor. In both Van Gaal demands greater care in possession and more accuracy in front of goal from his new squad.
“I hope we can build up more carefully than the last matches because we created a lot of chances in the last match against MK Dons, but we had problems in building-up situations,” said the Dutchman. “We also lost the ball in the first phase of our building-up and then we gave the ball away. They had six chances and scored four goals. We had 11 chances and zero goals.”
Meanwhile, Burnley manage Sean Dyche boasts a fully fit squad aside from the injured Sam Vokes. The 43-year-old is tasked with keeping Burnley up despite the Lancashire side boasting the smallest budget in the Premier League. Indeed, Burnley’s transfer and wage bill was eclipsed by many in the Championship last season.
Like United Burnley has suffered a difficult start to the new campaign, losing to Chelsea and Swansea in the Premier League and then being dumped out of the Capital One Cup at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday night. Still, the most recent fixture at Turf Moor between the sides was decided in Burnley’s favour by a single Robbie Blake goal.
Neither does United’s form present an obvious away victory, although it is hard for Van Gaal’s side to countenance anything else on Saturday lunchtime. Lose or draw and the Dutchman will suffer yet more lurid headlines and further tales of United’s burning empire.
“There’s a bit of ‘hoo-ha’ about Manchester United at the moment,” said Dyche.
“I don’t look at that, I look at the players they’ve got, the manager they’ve got, the club they are. I don’t think you start looking at them for any other reason other than they’re a fantastic club, a very good group of players and a renowned manager. We’re not naive enough to think that there’s any other reason, they’ll come here to play hard and try to get a result, and of course we’ll do that as well.
“Whether they are under pressure or not, it will only be shown when the whistle blows. That’s when two teams come together and ours will be ready, organised and certainly fit enough, we know that. We have to look at ourselves and not get involved in what is going on at Manchester United.”
Van Gaal, by contrast, is consumed by United’s fate, although the Dutchman lacks little in self-confidence.
For United supporters, meanwhile, almost £60 million spent on Di Maria this week is heaven-sent.
Burnley (4-4-2): Heaton; Trippier, Duff, Shackell, Mee; Arfield, Marney, Jones, Taylor; Jutkiewicz, Ings
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Jones, Evans, Blackett; Valencia, Fletcher, Di Maria, Young; Mata; Van Persie, Rooney
Burnley: Wallace, Kightly, Sordell, Reid, Gilks, Ward, Barnes, Cisak, Lafferty, O’Neill, Long, Ward, Howieson
United: Amos, Johnstone, Thorpe, Vermiji, Keane, Cleverley, Powell, Januzaj, James, Anderson, Lawrence, Welbeck, Hernández, Wilson
Burnley 44 – Draw 19 – United 57
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistants: M Mullarkey, M McDonough
Fourth Official: M Clattenburg
Burnley 1 – 2 United
£1 bet club
Di Maria & 1-2 @ 35/1
Running total: £(-)3
Defeat to Leeds United in the FA Cup, followed by a disappointing draw at Birmingham City and much talk of financial meltdown added to the air nervousness at Old Trafford. It was an atmosphere that the visitors briefly threatened to take advantage of before three second half goals handed Manchester United a flattering 3-0 win over Burnley today.
Dimitar Berbatov, under pressure to finally deliver on his £31 million price-tag, scored one and created another as the Bulgarian proved the catalyst for United’s victory over Brian Law’s men. Sir Alex Ferguson will need his striker to keep up this form as he nurses the former-Tottenham Hotspur player through the rest of the season.
Yet the Bulgarian was guilty of wasting chances in an unimpressive opening half for the home side, which saw the return of Edwin van der Sar and Nani to the starting eleven.
Arguably Burnley made the most of the opening 45, with former United trainee Chris Eagles central to some of the visitors’ best work. Indeed, the midfielder’s superb break and pass created an opening for David Nugent who should have scored to give the Clarets the lead.
Earlier the former-Preston striker, on loan from Portsmouth this season, had created an opening for Steven Fletcher only for the Scot to slide his shot wide of goal with only van der Sar to beat.
While Berbatov was clearly affected by the knee injury that will need a summer operation, his teammates were out-of-sorts in a first period that brought plenty of possession for the home side but little real danger. On this evidence Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Nani will miss out on the trip to Eastlands for the Carling Cup semi-final next week.
On the hour United had the breakthrough, Berbatov collecting the ball to score with a deflected left-footed finish past Brian Jensen. Earlier the Bulgarian had superbly controlled the energetic Antonio Valencia’s pass only to fire against the post.
Minutes later Wayne Rooney doubled United’s advantage, taking his time to control and fire past the Burnley ‘keeper after Berbatov’s good work for the Scouser’s 16th strike of the season.
United wrapped up the flattering win when Mame Biram Diouf nodded Valencia’s long pass over Jensen and into the net in the final minute. The Senegalese striker’s gymnastic celebration will live longer in the memory than United’s tepid performance.
“Maybe the scoreline was a bit unfair on them,” said Ferguson, who revealed that Berbatov’s knee was troubling the striker during the match.
“It was a funny game, we were very frivolous, Burnley missed good breakaways and it could have been embarrassing. Maybe we were a bit nervous but, for a long time, I thought Berbatov was the one player who looked like scoring. He was feeling his knee and could have gone off at half time but he wanted to stay on.”
On the day that Chelsea scored an ominous seven at home to Sunderland, with key players absent at the African Cup of Nations, Ferguson’s team needs its best players back. Fast.
Indeed, the solidity that van der Sar offers, despite Tomasz Kuszazk’s outstanding recent form, is central to United’s ambitions at home and abroad this season. And while Ferdinand did not start at Old Trafford the England international’s return to the heart of United’s defence is now days and not weeks away.
United is clearly missing the creative spark in central midfield but any hope of a fourth Premier League title in a row is extinguished without Ferdinand and van der Sar.
Relief today, with much credit to Berbatov for a superb goal and assist, but Ferguson is unlikely to be happy until a full squad compliment is at his disposal again once again.
Sir Alex Ferguson may turn to Edwin van der Sar as United look to increase the pressure on Premier League leaders Chelsea with a win over Burnley at Old Trafford. The United ‘stopper, who joined the squad’s warm weather Qatar training camp, is available following his wife’s recent illness and could take over from Tomasz Kuszczak in goal.
“We’ve had light at the end of the tunnel with Edwin coming back,” said Ferguson in his morning press conference at Carrington on Friday.
“He’s done well. He’s been out for a few weeks with his personal situation. It’s great to see him back and that experience, when he does come into the team, is very important. We’ll see him today and see how he feels but he’s trained every day and is doing well.”
Ferguson, who took his players on a short-notice trip to Qatar this week, confirmed that long-term injury victims Rio Ferdinand and Owen Hargreaves trained with the squad in the past last week.
Indeed, Ferguson, who must plan for upcoming matches against Manchester City in the Carling Cup and Arsenal in the Premier League, may spring a surprise and start both Ferdinand and van der Sar against Brian Laws’ men.
However, Dimitar Berbatov will need surgery on a knee injury, the Scot confirmed, which will take place in the summer.
“Dimitar doesn’t want an operation,” said Ferguson.
“Sometimes he feels the injury, other times he doesn’t. It might have been the warmer climes but he didn’t feel it at all in Qatar last week. We are just keeping an eye on it at present.”
Berbatov is available for the The Clarets’ visit and may start along with Wayne Rooney in a two-man attack against the team that inflicted United’s first defeat of the season in August. Meanwhile, Michael Owen will face competition from new recruit Mame Biram Diouf for a spot on an increasingly crowded bench.
In midfield Ferguson will base his selection on Wednesday’s Carling Cup semi-final with Manchester City, with Gabriel Obertan and Darron Gibson likely to play at Eastlands but not in the Premier League. Michael Carrick and Anderson may start in central midfield on Saturday with Darren Fletcher suspended after the Scot’s red card at Birmingham City last weekend.
New Burnley manager Brian Laws, sacked as coach of Championship strugglers Sheffield Wednesday in December, takes charge of his first game at Old Trafford. The surprise choice must do without defender Steven Caldwell and Chris McCann through injury. Andre Bikey is at the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola. Former United trainee Chris Eagles is fit and will play.
Burnley, who haven’t won in nine Premier League matches, visit Old Trafford just two points above the relegation zone after the departure of former manager Owen Coyle to Bolton Wanderers last week. But, says Laws, all the pressure is on United.
“The pressure has totally transferred on to Manchester United. They are having a sticky moment,” said Laws predictably.
“Burnley deserved the result at the start of the season and the whole country was delighted. It gave a realism back to football and this was what Burnley had been waiting for for 30 years.
“There’s no reason why they can’t go and do it again, everything is possible.”
United meanwhile must take full advantage of Chelsea’s recent dip in form if the team is to put any pressure on the leaders. United, just a point behind the Londoners with a game more played, can retake the Premier League summit should Carlo Ancelotti’s men stumble at home to Sunderland.
United’s humiliating defeat at Burnley on Wednesday night is not the beginning of a crisis for the club. Early in the season, with a rash of defensive injuries, shocks are unsurprising. Even defeats such as United’s to Burnley Wednesday night. Save for another defeat this coming weekend, the word crisis can be placed firmly on the shelf. But the Turf Moor game confirmed the suspicions of pre-season that United without Ronaldo lack creativity and penetration in attack. Indeed, if the team needs around 114 goals to match last season’s achievements, it seems unlikely to achieve it with the current personnel.
Worryingly, newly promoted Burnley, with barely a player worthy of United’s reserve team, didn’t even have to ‘park the bus’ in order to beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Despite the away team’s superior possession, Burnley took the attack to United on the break and looked consistently dangerous. All credit to them. For all United’s territorial advantage against the Turf Moor outfit, the team managed just four shots on target all night. One of those was Michael Carrick’s unsuccessful penalty.
Ferguson may be right in his assessment that United created enough chances to win the game but the team’s profligacy is a now recurring theme. Frankly, the chances created weren’t all that good anyway. Fans must hope that the 100 goals Ronaldo either scored or assisted in the past two seasons are not the difference between success and mediocrity.
But inherently Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Nani and Antonio Valencia are top class creative players; the goals should be flowing by now. Ferguson is right to say that the club has “a great group of players.” But the concern is that the team isn’t gelling in the way Sir Alex would have hoped. Shorn of Ronaldo, and tactically more predictable, United is a undeniably blunter force this season.
Could it also be that the club’s forwards simply can’t work together? At international level Rooney and Michael Owen rarely clicked. At club level the evidence suggests that Rooney and Berbatov have failed to strike up a profitable relationship either. Meanwhile, it would be unfair on Valencia or Nani, talented though each is, to pretend that either can be the new Ronaldo.
Ferguson must also be concerned with Michael Owen’s likely success this season. Three competitive and seven pre-season matches on and Owen has scored only against the semi-professional teams on the Asian tour. Play him and the goals will come they say. The fans are still waiting.
Perhaps – most realistically – United is likely this season to be the ‘rigid’ team predicted by Darren Fletcher. Safety in defence is the team’s route to success this season. It’s a strategy that is being undermined by injuries, with Rio Ferdinand out for the next month, Johnny Evens in desperate need of an ankle operation and Nemanja Vidic only just returning to fitness. The Serb, who will play against Wigan at the weekend has no pre-season matches behind him. For the sake of a morale boosting victory against the Latics, fans will hope Vidic picks up the pace instantly.
It’s been 45 hours 36 minutes and counting since the smackdown at Turf Moor. Fans may hope to wake up, discovering that Manchester United did not lose to Burnley; that this defeat is as true as a FSW facht. Alas, the bad dream seems to be reality. So what can supporters do to make the pain go away? Reach for the comfort blanket and here are six to keep you going fellow reds:
- If Fletcher (formerly known only as the Scottish Player) had played, United would not have lost to Burnley because he is the team’s new midfield general. This now familiar refrain seems to have been formulated during the red invasion of Rome last May. But for all Fletcher ‘s improvement, he has never scored more than three goals during a Premier League campaign. Would the Scot really have been able to change the game at Turf Moor? Fletcher is a player who has improved dramatically but a matchwinner is not a label that suits him.
- If Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were playing, United would not have conceded at Turf Moor. This may be true. Rio and Vidic have formed on the best defensive partnerships in the Premier League but isn’t it somewhat soul destroying that that United can’t win without them?
- Once Owen Hargreaves is fit, United’s midfield will be unbreakable. We all want to be millionaires but what are the odds?
- If Antonio Valencia and Dimitar Berbatov had started, United would have won the match. Valencia and Berbatov both started against Birmingham and though United won, neither player produced a performance that set the heart racing When the pair came on as substitutes against Burnley, there was the hope that one of them would produce something magical. But in the fans’ hearts few would have believed they were capable of turning things around. And they were right.
- Michael Owen will score goals. It used to be a commentators cliché to repeat the argument each time Owen failed to make the England team. United fans must have chuckled at their active imaginations. Now, the Old Trafford terraces recite the same words. It’s not working.
- Don’t worry, United will buy Silva/De Rossi/Van de Vaart/Sneijder/Ribery/Aguero. Our collective inner transfer muppet yearns for this quick fix, no matter what the cost. So what if the club is £700 million in debt, United need a match winner right now! Then the truth hits like a dagger to the heart; the manager is tight and the club doesn’t buy players over 25 anymore.
And just when the despair becomes overwhelming, hear that faint whisper in the air and close your eyes. It’s the spirit of the Busy Babes. ‘Do not be afraid, we’ve been through worse and triumphed in the end.’ This is United, the most successful team in England. It survived Munich. It’s manager has won 11 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues. As comfort blankets go, it doesn’t get better than that.