Manchester United have moved level with Liverpool, separated from the champions by goal difference only. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side did so courtesy of Bruno Fernandes’s 15th strike of the season, United finding a way to claim victory as they did against Wolves, the Portuguese’s winner coming moments after Aston Villa had levelled.
Liverpool can go clear once more on points when visiting Southampton on Monday but United play their game in hand at Burnley on Tuesday week and could face Jürgen Klopp’s team on 17 January at Anfield with a chance to take over as outright leaders themselves.
Satisfying for Solskjær was how his players fought and he could point to numerous standout displays. At the death, David De Gea’s save from Matty Cash and Eric Bailly’s block of Kienan Davis’s shot summed up United’s spirit, the Ivorian being mobbed at the final whistle for his heroics.
“You can see how much it means to him and the boys,” Solskjær said of the centre-back. “He is so well liked in the dressing room – everyone wants him to do well after the injury struggles he’s had.”
United were fast out of the blocks, Paul Pogba, Fernandes and Anthony Martial causing panic in Villa’s area, each having a chance to test Emiliano Martínez.
A rare 4-2-3-1 that had Pogba at times on the left of the trident had the home team stroking the ball between Fred and Scott McTominay before launching attacks, one of which allowed Martial to shoot as Fernandes jumped out of the way.
Villa, though, bared their teeth in a fluid counterattack that featured the effervescent Jack Grealish and ended with De Gea beating away a John McGinn shot.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka can be a reluctant crosser – a prevailing criticism of the right-back – but an overlap that was followed by him rolling the ball into Pogba illustrated how adding this facet will improve his game.
Pogba dummied the right-back’s pass and Fred took aim. The shot was too high but it served to warn Villa.
Yet what followed was McGinn buzzing around midfield, dictating the pattern, and United were under siege for a passage, Pogba making a vital header away from Ollie Watkins as the Frenchman continued to impress.
In an open contest, Solskjær’s men threatened again. First, Martínez had to race out and clear with a stooping header; then Pogba ought to have tested the keeper but instead hit wide.
The midfielder was proving a menace as he can be when on song, one slick back-heel to Martial being mirrored by the No 9 to allow Pogba a shot. This was blocked in a half which in its below-par quality in the final third was resembling the Wolves encounter on Tuesday night, when Marcus Rashford’s late deflected winner separated the sides.
As the interval approached, Douglas Luiz blasted over a free-kick to sum up the fare on offer.
However, United elevated proceedings with a superb move. De Gea hit the ball upfield and when it went to Pogba he juggled and fed Rashford, whose slick flick had Wan-Bissaka skating along the right flank. Again, he decided to cross and it was pinpoint: Martial headed in, with Tyrone Mings at fault for not intervening.
“I could just hear voices – back post, front post,” said Wan-Bissaka. “I just went with the front post and put it there.”
As United kicked off the second half they were level with Liverpool’s 33 points: here, then, was a test of game management for them. Their first act featured a sweet Fred flip that fed Martial who released Rashford along the left. The No 10 moved in behind and his low cross was watched carefully into Martínez’s hands.
Villa’s riposte had Grealish setting up Watkins: the centre-forward’s header was goal-bound before De Gea palmed over.
Grealish was provider once more when a diagonal pass played in Anwar El Ghazi: his effort beat the United keeper but not his right post. This was a clear pointer that United firmly needed a second goal.
Rashford went close to supplying it when quicksilver feet opened up space but his attempt was too close to Martínez. And United’s profligacy was indeed costly, as Grealish pounced. Villa’s captain ghosted into United’s area, rolled the ball over to the right, and Bertrand Traoré equalised.
The match turned again, though, on Douglas Luiz’s foul of Pogba in the area. Michael Oliver awarded the penalty kick – VAR agreed, to Dean Smith’s post-match incredulity, Villa’s manager believing the No 6 “tripped himself” – and Fernandes smashed home.
From here there were shaky moments for United as Grealish continued to probe but Martínez had to tip a Fernandes shot on to the bar as Solskjær’s men closed out the contest to go 10 unbeaten and nudge closer to Liverpool on their perch.