United make the trip north to Turf Moor this weekend to face a Burnley side which has confounded many pundits who predicted a season-long struggle in the lower reaches of the Premier League for the Clarets. Burnley currently sit in a very commendable 7th position, with 34 points from their 23 games played, and clearly base their success on a water-tight defence, because the Lancashire side have only scored 19 goals this season…but have only conceded 20 goals! Only the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea have conceded fewer goals than Sean Dyche’s men.
This is the second meeting between the sides this season. On Boxing Day, the visitors shocked a lethargic United at Old Trafford by storming into a 3rd minute lead, Ashley Barnes profiting from some slack defending at a free-kick, before Steven Defour scored the ‘best’ goal David de Gea has conceded this year, giving our Spanish super-stopper no chance with a 25-yard free-kick into the top right-hand corner of the Stretford End goal. Thankfully super-sub Jesse Lingard came off the bench at the interval to score twice and rescue a valuable point for us, but a home draw is always to be regarded as ‘two points dropped’.
The Red Devils come into the game on the back of a 3-0 home win over struggling Stoke City, a victory which in reality wasn’t as convincing as the scoreline would suggest. We were quite fortunate that the Potters players passed up several excellent scoring opportunities which, worryingly, they didn’t really have to work very hard to create. David de Gea pulled off a great save from Xherdan Shaqiri in the 1st half to preserve our 2-0 advantage at that stage, and I would hope that Jose Mourinho will have stressed the importance of picking up runners from midfield, as Stephen Ireland was permitted far too much freedom on Monday evening.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (very fluid 4-2-3-1)
GK: David de Gea – David, as alluded to above, was in excellent form when called upon against Stoke City, and again he will fancy his chances of keeping another clean sheet against a relatively shot-shy Clarets attack.
RB: Antonio Valencia – Tony returned from his hamstring injury lay-off to score an absolute belter to open the scoring on Monday evening, all the more remarkable as it was struck with his left boot! Even at Turf Moor, I’d expect United to have most of the possession, so hopefully Valencia gets a few opportunities to show his attacking strengths.
LB: Luke Shaw – I’ve made my own personal views on Luke Shaw clear here. Barring injury, the lad deserves to be given the chance to become the player Louis van Gaal hoped he would become when signing Luke in 2014, and his recent form has been a delight to all his numerous fans amongst our support.
CBs: Marcos Rojo & Phil Jones –With Eric Bailly still sidelined, Jose has paired Jones alongside Chris Smalling recently. Personally, I prefer Rojo to Smalling; despite his occasional rash challenge, Marcos is a much better footballer than Smalling, and I’d bring him in alongside Phil, who has been a rock for us this season. They will probably come up against the bruisingly physical duo of Ashley Barnes & Sam Vokes – should be a tasty battle out there!
DMs: Ander Herrera & Nemanja Matic – Mourinho chose to play Paul Pogba in a pairing with Matic against Stoke City, and I think that helped create the problems we had with Stephen Ireland being able to find space around our penalty area, as Pogba is not always disciplined in picking up his man. I’d bring Ander Herrera in alongside Matic so that Pogba is freed to operate further forward.
RM: Jesse Lingard – Lingard was back to being quietly efficient against Stoke, leaving the limelight-grabbing to Martial, Valencia and Pogba. However Jesse’s efforts are no longer “not seen”, and he will again be a major threat to the Burnley defence with his intelligent running and movement.
AM (C): Paul Pogba – Paul produced yet another majestic display of midfield dynamism against Stoke City, cutting their defence to ribbons at times with his ability to knock a ball 40 yards onto a team-mate’s toes, or play a ‘blind’ pass (as he did for Anthony Martial’s goal) which nullifies several opposition players immediately. I feel sorry for whichever player(s) Sean Dyche details to pick up our world-class French general – good luck with that one lads!
LM: Anthony Martial – The young French maverick capped another excellent display against Stoke City with a simply superb finish from a Pogba lay-off midway through the opening half, and he is increasingly making himself undroppable on the left-hand side. With the rumoured imminent arrival of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal, that’s perhaps very good timing from Tony’s point of view…!
CF: Romelu Lukaku – the big man capped a commanding performance with the third goal past Jack Butland on Monday evening, and looks back to his menacing best….that’s very bad news for the likes of Ben Mee and James Tarkowski. Again, if we can keep the Belgian hitman involved in the action, you wouldn’t bet against him grabbing another goal or two at Turf Moor, though Burnley have been very miserly at home.
BENCH: Romero, Rashford, Smalling, Blind, Young, Fellaini, Mata.
The Clarets have already shown themselves to be no push-overs for anyone in the Premier League this season, though I’m sure Sean Dyche will be growing more concerned at the fact that they haven’t won a game now since 12th December, a run which includes a 4-1 F.A. Cup loss at Manchester City.
United have recovered nicely after a wretched Christmas period which saw the club drop six needless points in successive draws to Leicester City, Burnley and Southampton; had those points been taken, we would be only six points adrift of our neighbours now, and a title challenge would still have been feasible. The apparent imminent signing of Alexis Sanchez has given everyone around the club a lift this week, but I would expect those players who feel threatened by the Chilean’s arrival to re-double their efforts in the coming weeks to convince the manager that it is someone else’s position Alexis should be taking, not their own!
Burnley is a tough place to go to and get a victory, but United undoubtedly have the class and ability to do just that, and anything less will probably see us pegged back by Chelsea and Liverpool, who both look to have much more favourable trips to Brighton and Swansea City respectively. Jose needs to get the balance right between being defensively sound yet threatening in attack, and for me that is done by allowing Paul Pogba to float in midfield, Herrera helping Matic protect the defence, while Pogba orchestrates attacks with Lingard and Martial. Let’s hope the boys show Alexis Sanchez that he is going to be joining a winning team which he isn’t guaranteed to simply ‘walk in to’.