Aston Villa 1 Mancherster United 3
The Premier League title may be heading to their noisy neighbours but Manchester United can at least be crowned the comeback kings of this season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s players seem to only start their engines after giving their opposition a head start, this time to Aston Villa through Bertrand Traore. This was the 10th time they had won after falling behind and yesterday it kept Manchester City waiting to clinch the title.
Solskjaer does not fancy his chances of beating Leicester City and Liverpool after the fixture schedulers handed his side two games in three days this week. But should they pull off another two wins, United would be four points behind Pep Guardiola’s team.
The blue ribbons are almost on the trophy but United are not giving up without a fight. Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani completed their turnaround and Villa’s misery was compounded by Ollie Watkins receiving a second yellow card when penalised for diving.
Solskjaer’s team are also within 90 minutes of being invincibles away from home this season and only require a positive result at Wolves on the final day of the campaign. They also confirmed a top-four place with this victory.
“I think the players are learning and developing as a whole and getting better,” Solskjaer said. “You hear the spirit, the camaraderie, they back each other, there’s competition for places, so I’m very happy.
“I believe in the boys and I think they believe in themselves. There wasn’t a lot wrong with the first half either, we just didn’t have the margins. It was just about trusting ourselves again because we’ve done that so many times. It was about, ‘Here we go again, boys, keep moving the ball quicker’.”
As they have done so often this season, United fell behind after a slow start. Scott McTominay lost the ball to John McGinn in midfield and it led to Douglas Luiz sending Traore away just inside the penalty area. The Burkina Faso forward forced his way around Victor Lindelof, who was well positioned but tackled with little conviction. His finish angled into the top corner.
This United team appear to respond to half-time team talks from Solskjaer and, within 11 minutes of the restart, they were ahead.
Paul Pogba was the first to spring to life, teasing Luiz with the ball before taking a knee in the back of the legs to earn a penalty. Fernandes stuttered in his run-up but waited for goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to move before rolling the ball into the opposite corner. After Sergio Aguero’s miss against Chelsea had kept the champagne on ice at the Etihad, this was a masterful penalty.
Greenwood nudged United ahead and became the club’s highest teenage goalscorer in the Premier League with 16, ahead of the likes of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs. He was fed the ball by Aaron Wan-Bissaka and turned sharply to deceive Tyrone Mings before shooting early to beat Martinez at the near post. With two more games this week, Solskjaer took him off shortly after.
“It was improved in the second half,” Greenwood said. “Ole said his bits in the changing room. It seemed to pay off. To be on the main stage and scoring important goals, it means a lot. We just concentrate on ourselves and take it game by game. We want to keep the pressure on.”
There was still work to do to keep City from celebrating. Harry Maguire was at the heart of the action and forced Dean Henderson, his own goalkeeper, into action when he tried to clear. He also picked up a booking, asking referee Chris Kavanagh “are you taking the p***?” as he tussled with Watkins.
Then came a sight Gareth Southgate would have been fearing. Maguire hobbled off with a twisted ankle to leave the England manager sweating on his fitness ahead of the European Championships.
Cavani headed in from Marcus Rashford’s cross to complete the scoring, before Watkins was dismissed late on for a second bookable offence after he was penalised for diving in the penalty area as Henderson rushed out to challenge him.
“The penalty, for me, is very soft,” Dean Smith, the Villa manager, said.
“The red card for Ollie Watkins is very, very soft and the word I would use is confused, because I don’t know where we are with decisions recently. Maybe I should coach players to put the brakes on and go down. I am fed up with talking about penalty decisions against Manchester United.”
Luke Shaw says the challenge for United is now to start games as they finish them.
“We have the quality, are a fit team and we always believe,” the full-back said. “When we got the first goal, I felt we were going to win.
“We are just focusing on ourselves but we look at the City result and we are disappointed with the points we have let go this season.”
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