Nights like this, in the depths of December at a sub-zero Turf Moor, are not the ones that will stick in the memory for Manchester United supporters come May, but they could turn out to be decisive in their attempt to return to the Champions League. In the end, it was one moment of ill-judgment from Charlie Taylor, coupled with a clinical finish from Anthony Martial and a late breakaway strike from Marcus Rashford, that decided this encounter, which had all the festive fizz of a bottle of champagne left open since Christmas Day.
But that will matter little to United, who are now only a point shy of fourth-placed Chelsea after back-to-back victories. This was far from perfect from United, but a first away clean sheet in the league since February secured with a makeshift midfield of Fred, Nemanja Matic and Andreas Pereira, who impressed throughout, represents a solid night’s work for Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side as they prepare for Arsenal on New Year’s Day.
Twenty-one points adrift of the league leaders is far from the ideal place to finish a decade that began with United regularly competing for major honours, but with Paul Pogba absent again here, United dominated enough of this contest to come away with a deserved victory. Burnley continue to be a pillar of inconsistency, with this their second consecutive defeat, having previously recorded successive wins. Here, they simply did not do enough to test United’s defence, meaning Martial’s first-half strike, after Taylor was dispossessed by Pereira, was always likely to be decisive.
With United still waiting to discover the extent of Scott McTominay’s injury, the big pre‑match discussion again centred on Pogba. With many expecting him to start, Solskjær instead decided not to expose the Frenchman to two games in three days, and he did not even travel to Turf Moor. That meant a first league appearance since September for Matic.
Solskjær had promised that United’s youthful side would be able to cope with the rigours of the festive period better than their opponents here and, despite an understandably slow pace to the game given that both had played 48 hours earlier, it was the visitors who enjoyed the brighter moments throughout the first half.
Rashford was lively early on, first forcing Nick Pope into a smart save from a curling free-kick before striking the base of Pope’s post after an intricate passage of buildup play. United’s threat was just as considerable out wide, with the pace of Dan James and Brandon Williams drawing fouls from the Burnley defence, though the visitors were not able to capitalise on the resulting free-kicks.
There were moments of promise for Burnley at the other end, emanating largely from their renowned aerial threat, with the pick of the opportunities coming when James Tarkowski’s header across goal narrowly eluded Jack Cork. But as half-time approached, United upped the intensity again, with the increasingly influential Williams at the heart of things.
It was the young defender’s run that led to Martial’s shot being cleared off the line by Phil Bardsley before the Frenchman just failed to get on the end of a superb ball played across goal by Williams. However, Martin would not have to wait much longer for his next chance and this time, he made no mistake. When Taylor was caught in possession by Pereira, the midfielder’s wonderful through ball put Martial in. He made no mistake, slotting past Pope, and United led on the stroke of half-time. The goal had been coming.
Pope was picking the ball out of his net again shortly after half-time, but on this occasion, Martial was penalised for a foul in the buildup, and the hosts slowly began to grow into the contest as the second half wore on. Dwight McNeil fired wide from a Burnley corner before David De Gea had to tip a Bardsley strike wide of his post.
The chances kept coming for Burnley but they had no cutting edge. A free-kick from Johann Berg Gudmundsson shaved the top of De Gea’s goal, and at the other end, with Burnley pressing for an equaliser, Martial could have wrapped victory up in the final moments after being set free by James, but he could not provide the required finish. It would not prove to be a significant miss, and in added time Rashford rounded Pope to ensure 2019 would finish with a crucial victory for Solskjær.