Paul Pogba fired Manchester United top of the Premier League table as they battled to victory over Burnley.
The first half was goalless but full of controversy as Luke Shaw was booked for an incident in which Burnley wanted a red card, while Harry Maguire had a goal disallowed for the slightest of contacts with Erik Pieters.
United upped the tempo in the second half and Pogba began to control the game before eventually breaking Burnley’s resolve when his volley from the edge of the box deflected past Nick Pope in the 71st minute.
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Burnley stay 16th in the table while United travel to Anfield to face second-placed Liverpool, who are three points behind the new league leaders, on Sunday.
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Can Manchester United challenge for the title? In a normal season a three-point gap at the top after 17 matches wouldn’t be much of a talking point, but this isn’t a normal season. United are now top of the Premier League at this juncture for the first time since 2012; their momentum – and, more importantly, their improvement – is now impossible to deny.
Even so, there are still some that question Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s capabilities as a coach, overlooking his subtle yet significant overhaul of the squad and the fact that he can draw the incisive best from the abilities of the likes of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and, after a long wait, Paul Pogba. Yet their gradual improvement is obvious even through even the simplest metric of the league table in the last two years, and now they look at the very least capable of maintaining a title challenge through the first half of 2021.
Solskjaer was keen to play down any such talk earlier this week, but the chatter will only increase after tonight. There’s a long way to go, and some formidable teams to finish above if they are to win their 21st league title; just six days ago, their neighbours Manchester City outplayed them to reach the EFL Cup final and are moving ominously into form themselves.
On Sunday, we’ll find out even more about what United might achieve when they travel to Anfield to face the champions. A draw would keep them on top of the table; if they win to go six clear and end Liverpool's unbeaten home record in the league since 2017, then the volume on the title talk will only increase.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Paul Pogba (Manchester United): After a quiet first half, Pogba took the game over in the second. He was instrumental in moving the Burnley midfield and defence around and creating space in wide areas, and it was a cross from Rashford from such a position that allowed Pogba to volley in the only goal of the match.
Burnley (4-4-2): Pope 7; Lowton 6, Tarkowski 6, Mee 7, Pieters 6; Gudmundsson 6, Brownhill 6, Westwood 6, Brady 5; Wood 6, Barnes 6
Subs: McNeil 6, Vydra 7, Rodriguez 6
Manchester United (4-3-3): De Gea 6; Wan-Bissaka 6, Bailly 7, Maguire 6, Shaw 5; Pogba 8, Matic 6, Fernandes 7; Rashford 6, Cavani 7, Martial 6
Subs: Greenwood 6, McTominay 6, Tuanzebe 6
27’ Shaw flattens Gudmundsson in a 50:50. Burnley want a foul but nothing doing, and United break. Fernandes fires a long ball that squirts through to Cavani, who is through but is flattened by Brady is he bears down on goal. Mee is nearby, but the United players are screaming for a red card. Both parts of the move are being reviewed by VAR...
32’ This could be massive decision either way. Eventually, after five minutes, it's all pulled back for a free kick on the edge of the United area and a yellow for Shaw. That seems harsh, as on the replay Shaw clearly played the ball first and Gudmundsson ran into his follow through.
36’ DISALLOWED GOAL! Shaw whips a ball into the back post, where Maguire gets up to plant a header back across goal and into the top corner. That's a great header, but it's been chalked for a foul on Pieters as Maguire jumped over him. It looked harsh to say the least, as Maguire had the run on Pieters, who never got off the ground.
71’ GOAL! Burnley 0 Manchester United (Pogba 71) It's been coming! Rashford gets in space on the right, and chips it to the edge of the area. Pogba is waiting there to volley it, and it catches a slight deflection off Lowton that wrongfoots Pope and sends the ball through him and into the net.
82’ CLOSE! That could have been the game. Pogba picks out a lovely short pass to release Martial into the area, but just as he shoots from ten yards out Tarkowski slides in with a superb challenge to block the shot. He's kept his team in it there.
87’ CHANCE! A low cross from the right squirts through the United area and falls to Vydra, whose flash shot is blocked by Bailly and crashes into the side-netting.
- Manchester United are the only unbeaten team away from home in the Premier League, having won seven and drawn one of their eight matches.
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