Manchester United can position themselves as outright league leaders on Tuesday with a win or draw against Burnley
Here it is; Manchester United’s long-anticipated Premier League game-in-hand against Burnley. Since the start of the season there has been an invisible asterisk next to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team’s league position.
Initially it provided a bit of hope that the early season situation wasn’t quite as dire as all the lingering in the bottom half suggested. Slowly, it became clear that this elusive game could be one that elevates United out of a huddle of teams on similar points. On Tuesday night, it could take them top of the league, three points clear, level on games played with arch-rivals Liverpool.
We have referenced the Burnley game countless times on The Devil’s Trident Podcast. It has always felt significant, like a potentially pivotal moment in the season if cards were played right before it. Now, almost half way through the season, we could get our first clear indication of whether Manchester United are truly in the title race.
The trouble with having winnable games in hand is that some often assume the three points are a given. Despite winning at Turf Moor on the last four occasions, Solskjaer’s men cannot have that mindset. This is a true test of whether the United boss has changed the mentality of his group of players.
It isn’t a formality, but title contenders expect to win these games and then they go and win them.
They couldn’t be better-placed to do so, either. Unlike last season, when a below-par squad was persistently stretched and challenged with key injuries, United’s squad has a full bill of health. Thanks to this frankly remarkable fact, Solskjaer was able to completely rest a lot of his key players in the FA Cup win against Watford on Saturday.
The result is a fresh Bruno Fernandes, David de Gea and Paul Pogba, among others. Harry Maguire ended up playing more than Solskjaer would have liked at the weekend after replacing Eric Bailly as a precaution but 45 minutes off is much more than he usually gets.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were also called upon to try and kill the game off with 20 minutes remaining but they should both be ready to go. The latter may feel his spot is under pressure again, though. Edinson Cavani has served his three game ban and is now clear to return. After two weeks out of action he’ll be raring to go.
The return of Cavani doesn’t necessarily mean Martial misses out of course. Solskjaer has played the pair of them along with Rashford on occasion this season with the younger forwards shifted out wide to make way for the experienced South American. Mason Greenwood could also be in with a shout to start on the right again after deputising through the middle on Saturday.
As for the midfield, Fernandes is a certainty and the trend for the season suggests the other positions could be filled by Pogba and Nemanja Matic. The ‘big game’ pair of Fred and Scott McTominay may well be saved for Anfield on Sunday.
De Gea should return in goal with Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Maguire ahead of him. The other two spots are less certain owing to Bailly’s knock and Victor Lindelof’s back problems. Axel Tuanzebe could get a second game in succession to allow their full recovery while the left-back position remains a bit of a toss up between Alex Telles and Luke Shaw.
For their part, Burnley’s form has been improving since the start of November after some poor results at the start of the season. Sean Dyche’s side have rediscovered their knack of keeping clean sheets and grabbing wins with the odd goal in games. United will have a job on their hands to break the Clarets down.
If they can get the three points on Tuesday night, Sunday’s game against Liverpool becomes a monumental six-pointer. The situation has to be handled one game at a time but things could get very interesting this week for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United.
Score Prediction: Burnley 1-2 Manchester United
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Burnley vs Manchester United (Last 5 Meetings)
January 2020: Manchester United 0-2 Burnley
December 2019: Burnley 0-2 Manchester United
January 2019: Manchester United 2-2 Burnley
September 2018: Burnley 0-2 Manchester United
January 2018: Burnley 0-1 Manchester United