13 mins: The ball drops kindly to Mee, who hammers a shot wildly off target from distance.
10 mins: Burnley have done all the significant attacking in the very early stages, and it seems their plan is to put Wan-Bissaka under maximal pressure with early high balls down their left flank.
7 mins: Gudmundsson’s high ball into the box is knocked down and nearly drops to Barnes, who flattens Maguire in his desperation to reach it and concedes a free kick.
5 mins: “I’m deeply conflicted tonight,” writes Richard Hirst. “As a Fulham supporter I badly need Burnley to lose but as a paid up member of the Anyone But United brigade I can’t support them either. I’m hoping for a 0-0 draw with a mass brawl leading to both clubs having points deducted for failing to control their players. At least that would warm up a cold night!” One of the worst things about football supporting is when it leaves you wanting both sides to lose a game you happen to be watching.
1 min: The game’s first shot comes within the opening 20 seconds, when a long ball from right to left bounces to Brady, who hammers a left-footer high from the edge of the box.
1 min: Peeeeeeep! The whistle blows, Ashley Westwood kicks off, he realises everyone else is on one knee, so he does too and bashfully re-kicks-off a few moments later.
“In case by some strange twist of fate Man Utd are awarded a penalty this evening, is there a narrative/case to be made that the skippy jump of he who will take it constitutes “ungentlemanly conduct” and should be stamped down on like a Monty Python foot?”
I don’t think so, as he doesn’t come to a standstill. United were given 14 penalties last season, twice as many as the fourth most-penaltied team in the division and three ahead of No2, but they’re only joint second in this season’s penalty table with six, four behind Leicester and level with Brighton.
“Big call by Ole to play Maguire IMO,” writes Peter Kingsnorth. “He’s a yellow card away from a one-match suspension. Liverpool would tear a Bailly-Lindelof pairing to shreds. Could have gone with Tuanzabe at left CB today. Decisions, decisions … who’d be a manager, eh?” This is indeed a risk. For what it’s worth, Bruno Fernandes, Fred and Luke Shaw are all two bookings away from a ban (though they would have to get both bookings in the next three games including this one, after which they can get another five bookings before they are banned). Burnley’s most-booked players, Jay Rodriguez and Ashley Westwood, are both also two bookings away from a ban, and they have four more games before the yellow card mini-amnesty kicks in.
Here is photographic evidence that Manchester United’s players have arrived at Turf Moor. Looks like they all have to show photo ID on their phones and have the right QR code before they’re let in.
Four changes for Burnley, who bring in Westwood, Pope, Brownhill and Lowton and take out Cork, Norris, Stephens and Bardsley. United make loads of changes to the team that beat Watford – in come De Gea, Maguire, Shaw, Pogba, Matic, Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Martial and Cavani – but the only changes to the team that started their last Premier League game see Fred and McTominay drop out, and Matic and Cavani come in.
The team sheets have been submitted, and tonight’s key names are these ones:
Burnley: Pope, Lowton, Tarkowski, Mee, Pieters, Gudmundsson, Brownhill, Westwood, Brady, Wood, Barnes. Subs: Cork, McNeil, Stephens, Rodriguez, Norris, Bardsley, Vydra, Long, Benson.
Man Utd: De Gea, Wan Bissaka, Bailly, Maguire, Shaw, Pogba, Matic, Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Martial, Cavani. Subs: Mata, Greenwood, Fred, James, Henderson, Alex Telles, van de Beek, Tuanzebe, McTominay.
Referee: Kevin Friend.
Manchester United have won eight and drawn two of their last 10 matches. They might not have spent much of the season looking much like a title-winning team, but that is title-winning form, and they start the evening second in the table, behind Liverpool on goal difference with this game in hand. Anything but defeat and they will sit alone at the top of the league by bedtime, and the last time they led the league as late into a season as this was eight years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson’s title-winning final campaign.
“We need to get points against Burnley before anyone can say you’re top of the table but that’s a position that we have put ourselves in,” says Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. “So I would like to think that we go into this game not thinking about where we’ll end up tomorrow night in the table but where we can end up in the table in May. That’s what matters. You accumulate the points throughout the season so if at one point you think ‘Ah, we’ve made it now, we’ve cracked it,’ and you relax, that’s when it’s going to hit you back. So we’re very focused.”
Burnley have won four of their last eight, and are a different prospect to the side that started the season so poorly. “I don’t think anyone’s doubted [United’s] ability for a long while, it’s getting the consistency into the team and winning games,” says Sean Dyche. “They’re showing much stronger signs of that obviously over the last run of games. The main thing is about our performance levels, and I think they’ve got stronger as the season’s gone on. We’re on a good little run ourselves.”
An interesting evening potentially awaits, or as interesting as evenings involving Dyche’s Burnley ever are (apologies, Burnley fans, but I’ve been burned too many times). Let’s share it, shall we?