When Paul Pogba signed for Manchester United in August 2016 in what was then a record £89.1 million transfer from Juventus of Turin, it was nights like this at Burnley. The French midfielder was instrumental in the club’s rise to the top of the Premier League table on the night.
Unfortunately for United and Pogba, those moments were far too rare. But finally, after so many years of disappointment, United are back on top, and their loudest and most disappointing player is the man who did it.
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Pogba’s goal for Turf Moor in the 71st minute. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 1-0 win was enough to score in the 57th minute – a deflected volley from a Marcus Rashford cross – but the importance of the goal was not limited to the point. The win took United’s Premier League unbeaten run to 15 games without defeat, a run that dates back to their 2-0 defeat of Liverpool in January. United return to Anfield on Sunday as leaders, three points clear of reigning champions Jurgen Klopp.
We know we want to be champions, Solskjaer said. They’ve had three great seasons, so we’re ready.
But we’re ready, and we’re excited, we want to, and it’s another test of character and quality. We’re in a good position.
Just 12 months ago, United were 27 points behind Liverpool when they made the short trip to Anfield. Burnley’s 1-0 win on Tuesday ended an incredible 33-point streak for United at the interval. Another win this weekend would give United six points and, if they win, confirm Solskja’s confidence in the title race.
United have not led at this stage of the season since their last win in 2012/13. Liverpool and Manchester City may have even more depth and pedigree than Solskjaer’s team, but the win at Burnley underlined United’s strength and determination to fight for the Ligue 21 title.
Error! The file name is not specified. Paul Pogba has yet to score too many crucial goals since returning to Old Trafford, but his goal against Burnley on Tuesday could prove crucial in the Man United title race. (Photo : Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Since losing to Arsenal in early November, United have taken 29 points from a possible 33 and are becoming more convincing in defence with each game, making this their first away loss in the league this season. But faced with a stubborn Burnley determined to make life difficult for Solskjaer, United remained patient and pushed back until Pogba closed the deal.
At that point, United should have scored a goal, as Harry Maguire was prevented from scoring a first-half goal after a clear push by defender Eric Peters. Referee Kevin Friend’s decision was not reviewed by VAR, leaving United complaining that they were denied a brilliant chance.
VAR had intervened earlier in the game in a confused but ultimately correct manner when United defender Luke Shaw was finally shown a yellow card for a foul on Johann Gudmundsson. Shaw’s foul cancelled out the next incident at the other end of the pitch when Robbie Brady was shown a yellow card for a foul on Edinson Cavani, which was deemed a possible red card by VAR for thwarting an obvious scoring opportunity. But since the Shaw incident first happened, Brady was released.
With United dominating possession but not breaking through, the VAR controversy seemed to be the main theme of the game, but Pogba’s goal changed the narrative to United’s despite the defensive mindset of the VAR and Burnley.
Since his agent, Mino Raiola, said last month that Pogba wanted to leave United, the 27-year-old has regained his form and is now playing some of his best games since returning to Juve four and a half years ago. Whether it is coincidence or the fact that Raiola’s words have given Pogba a sense of freedom, United will not object to the player continuing to make a difference as he has done at Burnley.
Pogba has now scored 27 Premier League goals for United, but this is only the third time one of them has decided on a match where the margin was just one goal. That’s the kind of impact a player of Pogba’s stature and reputation should have on a much more regular basis. If this is the start of something like this, it could be the difference between United being title contenders and a team that can actually go out and win.
Solskjaer knows exactly the difference Pogba can make.
I have always said that Paul is an important player for us, Solskjaer said. He’s a good character in the locker room, he’s someone people admire, he’s a fighter for the world. At this point we see the best of Paul.
But the challenge for United and Pogba now is to build on that victory and show they are serious about winning the title. If United have the talent, the question remains whether they have the depth. But they delivered to Burnley and did what they had to do.
We knew that if we won, we would be the best in the league when we played Liverpool, Pogba said. We must remain calm, this is an important moment. Let’s see what happens.
It’s going to be a great game for everyone. There’s a big game coming up, so let’s get ready.