Manchester United have moved level on points with Liverpool, separated from the champions by goal difference only. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side did so courtesy of Bruno Fernandes’s 15th goal 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.
Everton’s defeat to West Ham was further incentive for United to win and pull further away from the fourth-placed team, while Aston Villa knew victory here would leapfrog them over the Merseyside club and Leicester into third due to superior goal difference.
Solskjær made a quartet of changes from the win over Wolves, drafting in Alex Telles, Scott McTominay, Fred and Anthony Martial, while Dean Smith’s adjustment from the draw at Chelsea was to replace Kortney Hause with Tyrone Mings.
United were fast out of the blocks, Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and 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 attacking trident had the home team stroking the ball between Fred and McTominay before launching attacks, one of which allowed Martial to shoot as Fernandes jumped out of the way.
Martínez saved well and two corners ensued. United did not capitalise on these and Villa showed their teeth in a fluid counterattack that featured Jack Grealish and ended with David de Gea beating away a John McGinn shot. Villa followed United in having two corners amounting to nothing and when Fred broke down the left from the latter of these and fed Marcus Rashford, United showed how lethal they could be when turning defence to attack.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka can be a reluctant crosser – a prevailing criticism of the right-back – but the 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 for the visitors, dictating the pattern, and United were under siege for a passage, Pogba making one vital header away from Ollie Watkins.
In an open contest, Solskjær’s men then 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 Frenchman was proving as effervescent as he can be, one slick back-heel to Martial that was mirrored by the No 9 allowing 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 Rashford’s late deflected winner separated the sides.
As the interval approached, Douglas Luiz’s blasted over a free-kick that summed up the fare so far. But United then elevated proceedings with a superb move. De Gea hit the ball upfield and when it went to Pogba he juggled and fed Rashford whose flick had Wan-Bissaka skating along the right flank. Again, he decided to cross and it was pinpoint: Martial headed in, with Mings perhaps at fault for not intervening.
United kicked off the second half on course to draw 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 roved in behind and his low cross had to be 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 again when a diagonal pass set up Anwar El Ghazi: his effort beat De Gea but not his right post. This all pointed to how United firmly required a second. Rashford went close to supplying it when quicksilver feet opened up space but his attempt went too close to Martínez. And United’s profligacy was indeed costly as Grealish pounced. Villa’s captain moved 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 and Fernandes smashed home to re-establish United’s ascendancy.
From here there were shaky moments for the home side as Grealish continued to probe but Martínez had to tip a Fernandes shot on to the bar as United closed the contest out to go 10 unbeaten in the competition.