Manchester United cling on to victory to move level with league leaders Liverpool
The pressure was most certainly on for Manchester United on Friday night. After their barnstorming surge up the table, they finally had the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of the table with a win against high-flyers Aston Villa.
Both sides have surprised everyone with their form this season, and eyes were not just on the clash of the two sides, but more specifically on the two most dynamic attacking threats that the Premier League has to offer: Bruno Fernandes and Jack Grealish.
Fernandes has become the talisman for this United side, and has consistently delivered top-quality performances while others around him have struggled. Only Harry Maguire has played more minutes for United this season, and while the forward line has been chopped and changed around Fernandes, his goal contributions have been ever-present.
The squad rotation around Fernandes has more than likely been tied to the early inconsistency of this season. It seems now, however, that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has found his favoured eleven.
The start from United was swift, with the poor starts against Southampton, West Ham and Sheffield United now seeming like an issue of the past.
Integral to Villa’s success this season has been goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, and he was forced to perform at his usual best at Old Trafford. Swatting away numerous efforts, the best of which was from Anthony Martial, Martinez kept his side level long enough for his teammates to find an attacking sting of their own.
Thankfully for United, David De Gea has recently rediscovered his own stellar form. John McGinn, who so often tests goalkeepers with his powerful drives, was first to force a strong save from De Gea, and his near post shot only encouraged his side further to fight back against this United side.
The game evened out but did not lack entertainment, as both sides moved from end to end through Grealish and Fernandes. The teams had found a fiery match in each other, and ultimately it took a defensive blunder to create a breakthrough.
With five minutes left of the first half, Marcus Rashford released Aaron Wan-Bissaka down the right flank and the defender surged towards the Villa by-line. With only Martial to aim a cross in towards, Wan-Bissaka angled in a ball that was aimed perfectly, but by right should have been cleared by Tyrone Mings.
Mings, who scored in this fixture last season, simply could not adjust his body well enough to reach the ball, and Martial got down to nod past Martinez. The advantage was United’s as the first whistle blew.
Half-time: Manchester United 1 – 0 Aston Villa
In such a cagey match, a one-goal lead was highly unlikely to last out the match.
While Villa had warmed up De Gea’s reflexes in the first half, he was to be truly tested in the second. What began was a vintage display from the Spaniard, who acrobatically clawed away an Ollie Watkins header that seemed destined for the goal soon after the half began.
But despite his heroics, De Gea could not prevent an eventual equaliser. A quickly taken free-kick caught out Wan-Bissaka, and allowed the potent Grealish to float in a near-perfect cross. Evading all but Bertrand Traore, the Burkina-Faso international then tucked the ball neatly between Maguire and De Gea to smear United’s clean sheet.
As the game stood even with half an hour left on the clock, it seemed that there would be a drawn-out slog to determine the winner of such a hotly contested encounter.
180 seconds later, that scenario had already been rewritten. Douglas Luiz had caught Pogba’s leg as the Frenchman marauded through the box, and a penalty was awarded to United.
Bruno Fernandes made no mistake.
If there was any harsh feeling about the nature of the penalty, it only served to reinvigorate Aston Villa hearts. Committing more efforts forward, it seemed that Anwar El-Ghazi was destined to fire straight back again when the ball fell for him at the far post.
Yet there was to be disbelief as Wan-Bissaka arrived to atone for his earlier mistake, stretching his leg high to clip the ball away from El-Ghazi’s path.
More chances followed for both sides, but the combination of wasteful finishing and Martinez and De Gea masterclasses maintained the one-goal deficit right up until the closing seconds.
From then, it was all about Eric Bailly. Villa substitute Keinan Davis caught the ball and was given one final chance to fire a shot at De Gea from close range, only for the mobile Ivorian to throw himself across Davis and block what looked to be a certain goal.
And when the final whistle went, United players knew exactly who to thank.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 1, 2021
It had been a hard-fought battle, but United secured all three points to pull level with Liverpool.
The result encapsulated everything that has improved for Manchester United over the last few months. Play flowed excellently, fuelled by quality from defence right through to attack, and the intensity never waned as the players demonstrated their immense fitness.
Praise should also go to the match-winners. Players such as Martial, Pogba and De Gea who have all struggled at times this season, were influential in achieving the victory – and you sense that the other members of the squad were genuinely happy for them to be now be playing so well.
The scenes at full time were a far-cry from those after the 1-0 loss to Arsenal here two months ago. There is now a real sense that this team is going places.
Full-time: Manchester United 2 – 1 Aston Villa
Man of the Match: Eric Bailly