Manchester United-Burnley Preview
Nothing about this Champions League quest has come easy for Manchester United as they wage a two-front battle to get through the door. The challenge heading into Sunday's match at Turf Moor versus Burnley is for Jose Mourinho to patch together a back line and find a second striker opposite Marcus Rashford.
The Red Devils (16-12-3) grinded their way into the Europa League semifinals by beating Belgian side Anderlecht 3-2 on aggregate after a 2-1 victory in extra time Thursday at Old Trafford. Rashford netted the winner on 107 minutes, showing savvy beyond his teenage years as he collected Marouane Fellaini's knockdown at the top of the box with his right foot and played the ball to his left with a flick off his right heel before calmly striking a left-footed shot from 12 yards into the left corner.
It was the 10th goal in all competitions for the 19-year-old, but three have come in the last four matches as Manchester United continue to stalk eternal rivals Manchester City for fourth place and the final Champions League spot along with Arsenal.
"All you can do is keep trying and we did that," Rashford told BT Sport after the match. "At the end of the second half, we all started pushing as a team and pinned them back. It was what the game needed at that time. We had a lot of chances where we could have scored a lot of goals, but in games like these it happens. We got the goal in the end and everyone is happy."
But like most things in this United campaign, victory has come at a price.
Defender Marcus Rojo was forced to leave before the half-hour mark with a knee injury, further thinning a central back line already without Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Daley Blind was pressed into service against Anderlecht and likely will be part of the spine in front of David De Gea.
The bigger injury concern, however, is star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who suffered a hyperextended knee right before the start of extra time. The Swede suffered through an off night after being given a rare rest in United's 2-0 win over league-leaders Chelsea, but to be without Ibrahimovic - who has 27 goals in all competitions - for any prolonged period of time in this run-in may condemn United to a third straight year of Europa League play.
"I want to wait but my feeling is not good," Mourinho said when asked about Rojo and Ibrahimovic's injuries post-match. "I don't think they are easy injuries but I prefer to wait until the tests are done … then I can speak what I feel because I am a manager, not a doctor."
Ibrahimovic's absence throws a bigger spotlight on Anthony Martial, who was largely anonymous in the half-hour he spelled the Swede. Mourinho called out the French youngster for not going in "my direction," as the manager put it before the Anderlecht game. Additionally, while Wayne Rooney was on the bench Thursday, the club's all-time leading scorer has not started a match since March 4 and last played April 1 before suffering an ankle injury.
Burnley (10-6-17) are close to ensuring their survival in the top flight, but the Clarets have made the task far more arduous than it needs to be with only one victory in their last nine league matches (1-5-3). Their horrid road form continued last weekend at Goodison Park, where they lost 3-1 to Everton and fell to 0-4-13 outside Turf Moor for the term. Sam Vokes converted from the spot early in the second half to level the match, but an own goal by defender Ben Mee changed the fortunes of the match after Burnley had been profligate with their chances in the opening half-hour.
"The second goal is so important and it hits two of our players and goes in, which is so unfortunate you can't believe it," manager Sean Dyche lamented to Burnley's official website. "I still felt we were going well in the second half but we just lost our focus for two or three minutes and after that second goal we saw a striker in top form (Romelu Lukaku) who finished it well."
The Clarets have pinned their Premier League hopes on protecting Turf Moor and have done to outstanding effect with 10 wins and two draws in their 16 matches. Hidden, though, is the fact three of those four defeats have come to the top six teams in the table - Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.
It will also be a Manchester United reunion of sorts as former products Robbie Brady, Michael Keane and Tom Heaton all suit up for Burnley. Keane has been the subject of rumours regarding a potential return to Old Trafford as his national career with England appears to be taking shape, and Brady - who arrived as a midseason transfer - has fond memories of his teenage days with the club.
"It was definitely the right choice to make to go to Manchester United when I was younger because I don't think I would have been the player I am today if it wasn't for Man United," the Ireland international said. "It taught me so much about football on and off the pitch. It was a bit stop-start and I had a few injuries but I definitely wouldn't change it. It was a fantastic period for me."
One of United's nine draws at Old Trafford came in the reverse fixture Oct. 29 as the teams played out a scoreless stalemate. Heaton finished with 11 saves as United racked up an astonishing 38 shots despite playing the final 22 minutes with 10 men after Ander Herrera picked up his second yellow card. Mourinho, meanwhile, was banished to the stands at halftime by referee Mark Clattenburg for arguing what he thought was a foul on Matteo Darmian.
Burnley are 1-1-0 at Turf Moor in the top flight versus Manchester United, winning 1-0 in 2009 and playing out a 0-0 draw in 2014.
Updated April 20, 2017