IT was never just about the beautiful games, even when Sir Alex
Ferguson was racking up 13 Premier League titles.
You’ve got to win when you’re minging.
This victory, courtesy of Paul Pogba’s deflected volley 20 minutes
from time, fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way
And Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s unlikely lads have done plenty of that on
their way to the top of the Premier League, at an advanced stage of
the season, for the first time since Fergie’s reign.
Stuffed 6-1 at home by Tottenham, dumped out of the Champions League
at the group stage, roundly panned by the army of former Manchester
United greats on the telly and by plenty more of us neutrals.
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And yet here they were up in the Pennines, with the Premier League
summit in sight, and no sign of altitude sickness.
So can this unfancied United team possibly stay there all the way until May?
They have a keeper in David De Gea who Roy Keane wouldn’t have allowed
on United’s team bus.
They have a skipper in Harry Maguire who has been banged up in a Greek
jail and sent off for England.
A club-record signing in Pogba with a questionable attitude and a
gob-artist of an agent.
And, other than Bruno Fernandes, they have no player who has
consistently hit world-class heights.
But they have won seven of their eight unbeaten Premier League away
matches – having enough mongrel spirit to fight back from behind on
Solskjaer’s old team-mates rarely gave him a hard time personally but
there had been deep doubts as to whether he was even capable of
guiding them into a genuine title race.
Was the boss too nice, his team too soft? Well the evidence of that
ever-truthful league table suggests not.
United will head to Anfield, for Sunday’s clash with the champions,
knowing that test will tell us even more about their credentials.
But United are all too aware of Manchester City in their rearview
mirror, with games in hand and a rediscovered mojo.
Given Liverpool’s injuries, City are the pedigree horse and they are
odds-on favourites with all major bookmakers.
United were given a taste of City’s class in last week’s Carabao Cup
semi-final defeat by Pep Guardiola’s men.
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And few would put their mortgage on United finishing as the top club
in Manchester this season, let alone all England.
But here was another obstacle surmounted as ther season approaches its
halfway mark – with the fixtures coming thicker and faster than ever
before in this congested Covid-infested campaign.
The idea of a cold Tuesday night at Burnley being the ultimate English
footballing test is not so much greatly exaggerated as a complete
Only once in the last four years had any ‘big six’ club come a cropper
at Turf Moor, on any day of the week, in any weather.
The Clarets did, though, win at Old Trafford last January – United’s
darkest moment before dawn, when Bruno Fernandes arrived and
transformed fortunes, like a latter-day Cantona without the absurdist
And Burnley do present a physical test unique in the modern English
top flight – they tested United, especially in the first half.
But United, dolled up in zebra print, were more manful than they
looked and withstood the assault with few genuine scares.
The first half brought VAR chaos – a potential red card for last man
Robbie Brady was overlooked because of a Luke Shaw foul on Joey
Gudmundsson, earlier in the phase of play, which eventually earned the
United left-back a booking.
Harry Maguire, United’s skipper and ref-baiter-general, had been
leading the protests to earn Brady a red card and he was frustrated
again when he headed in at the far post only for VAR to rule out his
effort for a barge on Erik Pieters.
Maguire’s effort would have been allowed if local Burnley ‘man’s game’
rules were allowed to prevail over FIFA laws.
Edinson Cavani, returning from suspension, squandered three good
chances and Anthony Martial forced a fine save from Nick Pope.
But in the end it was Pogba, so good of late, who settled it from
Rashford’s neatly lofted cross.
Solskjaer’s United have the cojones and they have the stamina – but do
they ultimately have the class?
It’s going to be fun finding out.