LOUIS van Gaal is hardly winning over the Manchester United faithful unconditionally in his first season in charge and the fact that this victory required two headed set-piece goals from central defender Chris Smalling and a Robin van Persie penalty to secure it will hardly have won over new converts.
But, with owners Avi and Joel Glazer making a rare appearance in the Old Trafford directors’ box, victory lifted their club into third place in the table and kept United firmly on course for a place in next season’s Champions League.
Smalling struck twice in the first-half after having made an extraordinary impact on the game, his first goal coming some 22 seconds after coming onto the field as a fifth minute replacement for Phil Jones who had injured himself making an early interception.
It was just as well that Smalling made his mark on proceedings because defensively, along with his colleagues, he endured a torrid time at the hands of Burnley — and highly-rated forward Danny Ings — in particular.
Between Smalling’s goals, it was Ings who equalised on 11 minutes with a magnificent diving header inside the six-yard box following good work from George Boyd and a well-aimed Kieran Trippier cross.
That cancelled out the early opening goal which came from a corner, won when Patrick McNair’s 22-yard shot was parried behind by goalkeeper Tom Heaton.
From Wayne Rooney’s resulting set-piece, Robin van Persie flicked on at the near post, Radamel Falcao headed back into the six-yard area from the far and Smalling made it three United headers in quick succession as he headed home from close range.
Even before they equalised six minutes later, Burnley might have scored on two occasions; Michael Keane heading disappointingly off-target from a corner then Michael Kightly shooting directly at David de Gea when through on goal.
And following their goal, Burnley looked by far the more likely scorers with United’s defence showing a remarkable lack of the most basic organisation and Ings, who seems poised for a summer move to Liverpool, almost unstoppable.
In quick succession, Ings had a shot blocked from a dangerous position and Ashley Barnes was just wide from 18 yards as United struggled to get to grips defensively before Ings, yet again, placed a near-post header just wide.
United’s organisational problems did not look likely to improve when they were made to take off the injured Daley Blind with half-time still seven minutes away and Ashley Barnes almost compounded those problems when he sent yet another promising chance flying just wide from eight yards.
It was against the run of play, therefore, that United went into the break back in front following a well-worked corner and exchange of passes between Rooney and Angel di Maria. The Argentinian was allowed space and time to cross for Smalling who, in a repeat of his first goal, rose well to head in emphatically from six yards. If United hoped the timing of that goal, two minutes into added time, would dampen some of Burnley’s spirit, they were quickly shown otherwise with Burnley almost equalising again within two minutes of the restart.
Boyd crossed from the right and Smalling and Jonny Evans both mis-kicked their attempted clearances in farcical fashion, presumably much to the surprise of Ings who saw his shot blocked from six yards by de Gea.
Adnan Januzaj, a bit part player to that point, made a strong run and forced Heaton into a diving save at full stretch but, while chances were far fewer in the second half, it was the visiting side that looked more likely to claim them until United claimed their third. Moments after a poor miss by Kightly, an errant pass by Scott Arfield allowed di Maria to break clear and into the area where the same Burnley man fouled him. Robin van Persie’s resulting 81st minute penalty finally killed off hopes of a late Burnley rally.
Had Januzaj scored with a goal-bound shot in the dying moments, it would have been an injustice for the visitors but captain Jason Shackell cleared off the line.
MAN UNITED (4-1-2-1-2): De Gea 8; McNair 6, Jones (Smalling 5, 7), Evans 5, Rojo 6; Blind 6 (Herrera 38, 6); Rooney 6, Di Maria 6; Januzaj 5; Falcao 5 (Wilson 73, 6), van Persie 7.
BURNLEY (4-4-2): Heaton 6; Trippier 9, Keane 6, Shackell 7, Mee 6; Boyd 7, Arfield 6, Jones 7, Kightly 6 (Vokes 86); Barnes 6 (Jutkiewicz(, Ings 8.
Referee: K Friend 7