Wayne Rooney scored one goal and was involved in the other as injury-hit Man United closed the gap on Manchester City with a 2-0 win at Burnley.
The stakes are rarely low in Manchester derbies, but they have just got higher. Manchester United go to the Etihad Stadium on Thursday just one point behind fourth-place Manchester City. They make the short journey unbeaten in 23 league games, having won the last three and demonstrated their character.
Jose Mourinho arrived in Burnley downplaying expectations by talking of “injuries, more injuries and people who are really tired.” His team had been taken to extra-time by Anderlecht three days earlier. He sent out a weakened side, minus five sidelined players and featuring eight changes. The supposed deputies then produced an authoritative display. Burnley have been terrific at Turf Moor this season. No one has won there quite as convincingly as United did.
The players warmed up in t-shirts bearing the names of the injured Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose campaigns were cruelly ended against Anderlecht, and did the damage early on. Such was their control that the second half felt an irrelevance.
A forward line also without the rested Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford, until late cameos, featured Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney. Both scored. Martial’s 25th United goal means that, as part of the terms of his 2015 move from Monaco, they have to pay the Champions League semi-finalists a further £8.5 million. United may consider that money well spent if it gets them back in the Champions League. Certainly it was a high-class strike, Martial swapping passes with Ander Herrera and finishing coolly as he surged clear.
His excellence was a reason why Burnley’s problems multiplied. They have only won once in 11 games and are being dragged back into trouble by Hull, Swansea and Crystal Palace. The Clarets probably only require one win to stay up, but their final home games, against West Brom and West Ham, seem set to be high-pressure affairs now.
A familiar chant began in the David Fishwick Stand; Turf Moor is a historic ground and this felt a throwback to the days when the United fans used to serenade Rooney on a weekly basis. They do not now, but his 251st United goal was cause for celebration.
Rooney had not found the net since his record-breaking strike at Stoke in January. Indeed, he had barely been seen on the pitch since then. But when Tom Heaton blocked Martial’s shot, Rooney was on hand to tuck in the rebound. His powers may be diminishing but his predatory instincts remain intact.
It was just his seventh goal in 43 games, but he had contributed to two in the first half alone. When the teamsheets appeared, it seemed as though Rooney would be leading the line. Instead, Martial started as the striker with the veteran on the left. It was a decision that was justified when the Frenchman put United ahead. One interpretation was that it showed the merits of using Rooney in a deeper role, though the reality is he was on the edge of his own box when he instigated the move with a clearance.
But Rooney had a prominence. He could have scored within eight minutes and perhaps he should have, but Ben Mee managed to take the sting out of a shot that Heaton held. He came close again when a left-footed delivery ended up on the roof of the net, even if there was a question over whether it was a shot or a mis-hit cross.
It highlighted the issue of the lack of precision in Rooney’s game. There was a moment when his touch was so heavy it turned into a pass to Paul Pogba — though such moments can be forgiven when players score.
Rooney’s goals had been rarities. So had his outings. This was just his second Premier League start of 2017 and injuries only partially account for his marginalisation. He arrived at Turf Moor with a solitary substitute’s appearance in the previous 10 matches and was visibly irritated that Martial was brought on ahead of him when Mourinho made his final change against Anderlecht.
It took a convergence of factors for the captain to return to the side. Had Ibrahimovic not been injured on Thursday; had Rashford and Mkhitaryan not been required to play 120 minutes then; had Juan Mata not also been injured; had there not been a Manchester derby this week.
Events conspired to bring Rooney back because there were few alternatives. But he can say he took his opportunity, however it came.
With the increasing probability that Rooney will leave in the summer, these final few games, plus their extensive injury list — which may now include Pogba after he limped off late — offer the chance that he can salvage something from a season that, with the exception of taking Sir Bobby Charlton’s record, had been resoundingly wretched. A productive afternoon may convince Mourinho he has something to offer.
While Rooney wheeled away in joy, the final touch to the shot that doubled the visitors’ lead actually came from one of their alumni. One verdict was that it may be an unwanted first United goal for a player who was fan, graduate of their academy and, briefly, a first-team player at Old Trafford.
Michael Keane is the one who got away from United. Given Mourinho’s centre-back shortage, he had further reasons to regret Louis van Gaal’s decision to let Keane leave in 2014. The Dutchman has been proved utterly incorrect for preferring Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair; Keane would probably now command a greater price on the transfer market than the three senior centre-halves he also favoured — Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans.
Keane will leave Turf Moor in the summer; it is just a question of where, and for how much. He is a composed figure with the technical ability to play for a side when passing figures more prominently among the centre-back’s duties.
He has outgrown Burnley in a season when he has been superb. But the PFA Young Player of the Year award nominee was troubled by Everton’s Romelu Lukaku last week and faced another trial by pace in the shape of Martial. He was blameless when the Frenchman scored, stranded upfield after advancing for a Burnley free kick; then mounted a desperate attempt to keep Rooney’s effort out. This was not his day, but plenty of others have been.
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