Paul Pogba volley sinks stubborn Burnley to send Manchester United three points clear at the top

Burnley 0-1 Manchester United: Ole Gunnar Solskjear’s side have taken the ascendancy in the title race

Mark Critchley
Turf Moor
Tuesday 12 January 2021 22:31 GMT
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


When people struggle to recall Paul Pogba’s match-winning performances in a Manchester United shirt in the interminable debate over his Old Trafford career, they should try and remember this one. It may not prove to be consequential when all is said and done come May but for now at least, and for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, it has put United top of the Premier League.

Not since December 2012 and Ferguson’s final title-winning campaign have United led after 17 games. They are unbeaten in the last 11 of them, winning nine. It will now be even harder for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to argue against the claim that his side are mounting a serious title challenge and that he is, in one respect, succeeding where David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho failed.

It represents a remarkable turnaround from a team that started the season so poorly. But United also started the season late and this trip to Burnley - initially scheduled for the opening weekend - was always their game in hand. It was billed as a chance to catch up. But four months after it was originally due to be played, rather than merely making up lost ground, they moved three points clear at the summit, jumping above reigning champions Liverpool.

They have Pogba to thank for that. A spectacular volley midway through the second half crowned a commanding midfield performance from United’s record signing and ultimately proved the difference, earning his side a deserved three points. Sean Dyche’s side made this difficult for them and, despite this being a chilly night in east Lancashire, temperatures rose out on the pitch at times. This was the type of physical and sometimes ugly that can be the undoing of title contenders. Not this time.

Attentions now turn to Sunday and Anfield, where Solskjaer’s side will face the side they have just deposed at the top of the table. That will be a true test of their credentials. It is perhaps the biggest game of Solskjaer’s two-year tenure yet. But it will also be an opportunity to move six points clear and really start to believe.

Paul Pogba celebrates scoring the winner
Paul Pogba celebrates scoring the winner (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The first half was the most entertaining 45 minutes of bad football that you are likely to see this season. It was defined more by contentious refereeing calls and off-the-ball scuffles than any coherent play. Chris Wood came the closest to opening the scoring, seeing a shot turned over the crossbar by Eric Bailly. At the other end, Edinson Cavani was more concerned with engaging in a rolling feud between him, Ben Mee and James Tarkowski. It was not the only bit of needle out there.

But things only began to truly boil over after Luke Shaw’s late challenge on Johann Berg Gudmundsson went unpunished. While Burnley protested, United broke forward. One long, raking pass from Fernandes sent Cavani through clear on Nick Pope’s goal until he was felled by a clumsy, last-man tackle by Robbie Brady. “Fucking hell! It’s a red at the other end,” screamed Pope, in one of many X-rated protests.

Referee Kevin Friend had two potential sendings-off and 22 angry players to contend with. He resolved the situation, some four minutes after the initial challenge, by showing a yellow card to Shaw, rescinding the yellow card for Brady and pleasing nobody. Essentially, Friend and the match VAR, Stuart Attwell, concluded that Brady could not be sent off for denying a goal-scoring opportunity which only came about because of a foul by Shaw.

Trying to make sense of the decision was enough to give anyone a headache. There was at least some light comic relief when the foul against Shaw was awarded and Burnley’s players sprinted into an empty half to try and take the free-kick quickly and have a free shot on goal. But controversy would reign once again a few minutes later, with Friend disallowing a Maguire goal from a far-post header.

Maguire had his hands on Erik Pieters as he clambered to reach Shaw’s cross, perhaps also making contact with his knee on the follow-through. You could see Friend’s thinking and Dyche would surely have protested in his post-match press conference had it been allowed. At the same time, you could see why Maguire sought out Friend at half time for a short, sharp conversation out on the pitch.

(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

United had actually improved after the VAR delay, with Cavani and Anthony Martial going close, but they still struggled to string together the fluid, unpredictable patterns of attacking play that would unlock Burnley’s resolute defending. Cavani went close again at the start of the second half but, after a Pogba drive through the centre of the pitch, he failed to make a connection from six yards out. Another attempt, upon receiving the ball after a short corner, swerved wide of the far post.

It was time for Pogba to take matters into his own hands. He started the move and finished it, winning a header in midfield then playing the ball out wide for Bruno Fernandes. Marcus Rashford waited a while before sending the cross in from the right, perhaps delaying his delivery until Pogba came into view. Once he arrived on the edge of the 18-yard box, in came the ball and a swing of Pogba’s right boot sent it crashing in. A deflection of Matthew Lowton may have been all-important, diverting the ball through Pope’s legs but Solskjaer and his players will not care. All that matters to them is that United are back on top.

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