After picking up yet another three points against stubborn, talented opposition and stretching their unbeaten domestic run to 10 games, Manchester United will spend the weekend level on points at the top of the Premier League, dreaming of what the rest of the new year might bring.
This 2-1 victory over Aston Villa - decided by a Bruno Fernandes penalty after Bertrand Traoré had cancelled out Anthony Martial’s opener - means that only goal difference separates Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side and reigning champions Liverpool after the same number of games.
Jurgen Klopp’s leaders travel to Southampton on Monday night, after which United will go back to having a game in hand over their historic rivals, a position they have occupied since the start of the season. That game - away to Burnley - is up next and the following Sunday, Solskjaer and his players travel to Anfield for what is now shaping up to be a top-of-the-table clash.
Solskjaer is currently deflecting questions about United’s credentials - insisting they can only start to think about such things come springtime - but make no mistake: this is starting to look like a title challenge, particularly when his side dig out a difficult New Year’s Day win like this one.
Villa are a very good side - more than the sum of their parts, more than just Jack Grealish - but even when they found ways to get on top of United, they could not stay there. There were two minutes between Traoré’s equaliser and Douglas Luiz’s foul on Paul Pogba for the penalty, while everything they threw at David de Gea’s goal late on was denied.
If there were any heavy heads still suffering from the night before, both sides hid it well. The game started at a terrific pace and though this did not necessarily translate into an early glut of goal-scoring chances, it was a welcome change from the rather sedate contests in the top flight over the past few days.
Martial and Fernandes both forced goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez into saves early on, while De Gea had to be alert to push away a John McGinn volley which threatened to creep in at the far post. Villa threatened down the flanks but United always looked more likely to find a breakthrough, with Paul Pogba particularly influential on the left-hand side of a midfield diamond.
No player took more touches, played more passes in the opposition’s half or had more shots on goal during the first half but it was his part in the goal that was most memorable. Collecting a loose ball under pressure in the middle of the park, Pogba turned away from Luiz, flicked the ball over McGinn’s head, spun around and nodded it into Marcus Rashford’s path to set off a counter-attack.
It was a brilliant piece of midfield play but there was even more to like about the goal from a United perspective, too. Rashford’s flick around the corner to meet the run of Aaron Wan-Bissaka was just as delightful. Wan-Bissaka’s attacking output is regularly criticised and he can seem hesitant in the final third but shook any apprehensions off this time, crossing for Martial.
His cute header from a predatory position on the edge of the six-yard box is exactly the type of goal that Solskjaer wants to see more often from his first-choice centre-forward. Edinson Cavani’s three-game ban may be a blessing in disguise for United if it allows Martial to build on an upturn in form which has produced three goals in his last six games after a long barren spell.
United deserved the lead but should have been better prepared for Villa’s response. Matty Cash, Ollie Watkins and Anwar El Ghazi all went close before parity was briefly restored. Wan-Bissaka was more concerned with standing on McGinn’s free-kick than getting back into position for it. Even then he failed to prevent McGinn from taking it quickly and releasing Grealish, who centred for the unmarked Traoré to finish.
Having seen his players work so hard to draw level, Smith was soon frustrated to see all that effort squandered. The penalty decision was contentious, with contact between Luiz and Pogba minimal at best, but the Villa midfielder’s attempts to win the ball could be described as clumsy at best. Martinez guessed correctly and went the right way but Fernandes is near-faultless from the penalty spot.
The closing stages would have been more comfortable for United had Martinez not tipped a Fernandes effort from distance onto the top of the crossbar. Instead, a De Gea save and Eric Bailly block were required to deny Cash and substitute Keinan Davis in stoppage time. When the final whistle sounded, the United players mobbed Bailly to thank him for his intervention, as if aware of just how important these three points could ultimately be.
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