Defeat to Leeds United in the FA Cup, followed by a disappointing draw at Birmingham City and much talk of financial meltdown added to the air nervousness at Old Trafford. It was an atmosphere that the visitors briefly threatened to take advantage of before three second half goals handed Manchester United a flattering 3-0 win over Burnley today.
Dimitar Berbatov, under pressure to finally deliver on his £31 million price-tag, scored one and created another as the Bulgarian proved the catalyst for United’s victory over Brian Law’s men. Sir Alex Ferguson will need his striker to keep up this form as he nurses the former-Tottenham Hotspur player through the rest of the season.
Yet the Bulgarian was guilty of wasting chances in an unimpressive opening half for the home side, which saw the return of Edwin van der Sar and Nani to the starting eleven.
Arguably Burnley made the most of the opening 45, with former United trainee Chris Eagles central to some of the visitors’ best work. Indeed, the midfielder’s superb break and pass created an opening for David Nugent who should have scored to give the Clarets the lead.
Earlier the former-Preston striker, on loan from Portsmouth this season, had created an opening for Steven Fletcher only for the Scot to slide his shot wide of goal with only van der Sar to beat.
While Berbatov was clearly affected by the knee injury that will need a summer operation, his teammates were out-of-sorts in a first period that brought plenty of possession for the home side but little real danger. On this evidence Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Nani will miss out on the trip to Eastlands for the Carling Cup semi-final next week.
On the hour United had the breakthrough, Berbatov collecting the ball to score with a deflected left-footed finish past Brian Jensen. Earlier the Bulgarian had superbly controlled the energetic Antonio Valencia’s pass only to fire against the post.
Minutes later Wayne Rooney doubled United’s advantage, taking his time to control and fire past the Burnley ‘keeper after Berbatov’s good work for the Scouser’s 16th strike of the season.
United wrapped up the flattering win when Mame Biram Diouf nodded Valencia’s long pass over Jensen and into the net in the final minute. The Senegalese striker’s gymnastic celebration will live longer in the memory than United’s tepid performance.
“Maybe the scoreline was a bit unfair on them,” said Ferguson, who revealed that Berbatov’s knee was troubling the striker during the match.
“It was a funny game, we were very frivolous, Burnley missed good breakaways and it could have been embarrassing. Maybe we were a bit nervous but, for a long time, I thought Berbatov was the one player who looked like scoring. He was feeling his knee and could have gone off at half time but he wanted to stay on.”
On the day that Chelsea scored an ominous seven at home to Sunderland, with key players absent at the African Cup of Nations, Ferguson’s team needs its best players back. Fast.
Indeed, the solidity that van der Sar offers, despite Tomasz Kuszazk’s outstanding recent form, is central to United’s ambitions at home and abroad this season. And while Ferdinand did not start at Old Trafford the England international’s return to the heart of United’s defence is now days and not weeks away.
United is clearly missing the creative spark in central midfield but any hope of a fourth Premier League title in a row is extinguished without Ferdinand and van der Sar.
Relief today, with much credit to Berbatov for a superb goal and assist, but Ferguson is unlikely to be happy until a full squad compliment is at his disposal again once again.