It was one of those afternoons when the football felt like the sideshow. Manchester United’s imminent purchase of Alexis Sanchez was the main event and the trip to Turf Moor to face Burnley appeared to be of secondary importance.
In the end, it was a piece of magic in the final third which gave United a well-earned 1-0 victory, Romelu Lukaku working hard down the right to buy himself time and space before finding Anthony Martial with a cross-field pass which the Frenchman fired home with aplomb.
United might not have had a shot on target in the 53 minutes which preceded their winning goal but they had been clinical when they truly needed to be. Yet beyond that single moment the match was the perfect advert for their decision to usurp neighbours Manchester City by entering the race to sign Sanchez.
With Juan Mata anonymous throughout and Jesse Lingard busy but mostly ineffective, the Chilean’s involvement was just what United appeared to be missing for the majority of the game. Their attacks lacked the sort of spark Sanchez can add, seemingly relying on individual moments that none of those in the starting XI were showing themselves to be capable of supplying.
It was left to Lukaku to draw James Tarkowski out of the centre of the area and tee up Martial for the game’s outstanding moment, and the former Monaco man didn’t disappoint. Martial delivered a timely feint before firing superbly off the underside of the bar at the near post, completely out-foxing Nick Pope in the Clarets’ goal.
This was Martial’s third goal in successive starts, the first time he has achieved such a feat under Jose Mourinho. That stat is reflective of the general upturn in form which has seen him favoured over Marcus Rashford over the past couple of months, and while some initially identified the Frenchman as the potential loser in the Sanchez deal their combined involvement going forward is now a mouth-watering prospect.
Mata should be the clear favourite for demotion to the bench given his lack of stand-out showings since his two-goal salvo at Leicester City before Christmas. Whereas Lingard and Martial have come into their own over recent weeks, the Spaniard’s performances haven’t been of a similar standard.
And the upgrade could make all the difference to this United side. Having Sanchez and Martial in the same attacking midfield line threatens to be one hell of a weapon for Mourinho’s armoury.
The consensus was unanimous around Old Trafford when it was admitted by Mourinho and his staff that Sanchez was a target. “United need him more than City” seemed to be the message, and events in Burnley only serve to back that up.
But as Martial continues to make the difference for now, United fans can only imagine what their side might be capable of once he has Sanchez teeing him up.