Rewind nine years and Manchester City were eight points behind Manchester United with six games to go and went on to become champions.
If few anticipate a role reversal now, not least because there is no Manchester derby to help effect a swing, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is retaining his hopes of regaining the title. “It is probably unrealistic but stranger things have happened in football,” the United manager said.
Certainly United, who are 12 points ahead of fifth-place Chelsea and have already equalled their points tally for the whole of last season, are close to achieving one of their objectives for the campaign. The Champions League beckons for them. Normally that would be something to celebrate.
Amid talk of a European Super League and threats of sanctions for anyone who signs up, that no longer appears to be the case. It no longer seems enough.
But in Mason Greenwood, United have a talent worth savouring. When the teenager was in a 15-game goal drought, it seemed a case of second-season syndrome for last year’s shooting star. Now he has four goals in three league matches, three of them late strikes.
“I have always been confident he would score,” said Solskjaer. “He is a natural finisher and a fantastic finisher and the improvement in his overall game has been there for everyone to see. He’s maturing. It’s lovely to see.”
Burnley rued the fact Greenwood’s decisive second took a double deflection off Charlie Taylor and Jack Cork. “A bit of bad luck,” lamented manager Sean Dyche. “They got one out of the blue.” Burnley were agonisingly close to a point and yet defiance brought no reward. They are now closer to the bottom three.
They might have been in a European Super League had one been created in 1960, but rarely since then. They nevertheless produced the obdurate display of underdogs battling to stay at this level. United were underwhelming in the first half; eventually, their quality and strength in depth told.
“A closer affair than the scoreline suggested,” said Dyche. “We chased the game and they got a third.” Bailey Peacock-Farrell had to make a fine save to deny Scott McTominay, Bruno Fernandes struck a post and with gaps opening up and the Portuguese providing a key pass, two substitutes combined, Donny van de Beek giving Cavani a tap-in.
The game was bookended by the game going in the same net. Chris Wood headed in after 10 seconds, with United spared by an offside flag and Dean Henderson, who had charged off his line in a failed attempt to claim Matt Lowton’s cross, particularly fortunate. “A wake-up call for him,” said Solskjaer. It was one of four chances for Wood, a regular scourge of United. “We got in some brilliant positions which is not easy when we come to these grounds,” added Dyche.
Peacock-Farrell deputised well for the injured Nick Pope with saves from Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Fernandes. Solskjaer, who had rested Cavani, summoned him at the break.
The Uruguayan can be a catalyst but his influence was indirect. His arrival released Rashford to play on the left and his dynamic break, including a nutmeg on the unfortunate Lowton, was capped by an unselfish pass to pick out Greenwood.
Yet United were pegged back after 114 seconds. Set-piece problems have been a theme of United’s season. They recurred again when James Tarkowski rose above Harry Maguire to head in Ashley Westwood’s corner. “Any time they get a cross in with their quality, you've got your heart in your mouth,” admitted Solskjaer.
But United came on strong again. Rashford was outstanding, playing longer than Solskjaer thought he would. “Second half he played so well,” he said. “He lasted for 80 minutes so that was progress.” For a second successive Sunday, they scored three goals after the break. Solskjaer added: “I am really proud that we never give up.” Not in the game or the title race.