Player Ratings, Reaction and Highlights : Manchester United 2-1 Aston Villa

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Manchester United won a tight and entertaining game against Aston Villa to go level on points with Liverpool at the top of the Premier League.

Goals from Anthony Martial and Bruno Fernandes sealed an important three points.

Before the game, a minute’s silence was observed in respect of Tommy Docherty, who passed away yesterday. Docherty managed both of these clubs and they put on an entertaining show in the first half though it has to be said what passes for entertainment in this era is laced with much more pragmatism than it was when the Scot was in the game.

Still, there was a moment or two when the evening evoked memories of Everton in January 1994 after the passing of Sir Matt Busby, considering the fitting tribute his old clubs put on.

United were bright from the start and Martial tested Martinez with one of his trademark efforts from 20 yards. Fred fired over after a dummy from Pogba.

But Villa settled once they were able to get some possession, with Grealish and McGinn enjoying themselves on the ball. The latter had a great chance when he forced De Gea into a smart save; the opening had come from United’s left, with Shaw being caught out of position and Pogba not tracking Cash, who was able to get the cross away.

Pogba was more impressive going forward with some tidy touches although when he finally did get an effort away at goal it went some way wide. He was then involved in an incident where he was elbowed in the face in the box and had the blood to prove it; referee Michael Oliver saw the evidence but decided not to investigate further.

Villa have a fantastic away record this season but their liberation and adventure left spaces for the hosts. It was a stark contrast to the claustrophobic approach of Wolves, and so it always felt like another chance would come.

United got a breakthrough five minutes from the break. Pogba’s clever flick went to Fernandes, then Rashford, then Wan-Bissaka. The full-back had been hesitant in good positions but this time hit an early cross and got the reward when Anthony Martial came across the near post and headed the ball in. A reward of significance for Martial, who has found himself having to prove his goalscoring prowess in the enforced absence of Edinson Cavani.

Villa started the second half on the front foot in search of an equaliser. Watkins forced a save from De Gea before the visitors got the reward for their effort. Wan-Bissaka switched off from a free-kick – a frustrating lapse of concentration considering Villa were taking all of their set-pieces quickly. Grealish had lots of time to pick a spot for Traore, who had lots of time to pick his spot in the net.

Parity lasted just three minutes. Pogba was felled in the box by Douglas Luiz, and Bruno Fernandes was at his clinical best from the spot.

Wan-Bissaka atoned for his error with a fantastic clearance and for a period it seemed as though United were in party mode; Pogba missed a chance, before Rashford and Fernandes had identical long range efforts that went just over.

Villa pushed for a late equaliser and had their chances. MIngs bullied Maguire from a set-piece but headed wide; Cash forced De Gea into a stretched save; and Bailly was forced to make some last-ditch heroics in the last minute of added on time.

United held on for a narrow win they just about deserved. It’s been a very impressive Christmas with 7 points from 9 which will only amplify talk of a title challenge. The narrow nature of the last two wins should serve as both evidence of how well United are doing at the moment and equally how unrealistic such talk is. Still, it’s nice to dream.

Selection

At this time of year, it’s difficult to criticise a manager exercising his squad options. Some still do, of course. And hindsight management has never gone out of fashion, so if and when things don’t work out, there’s always someone with an ‘I told you so’ waiting even if they really didn’t.

The biggest conclusion is the selection of Bailly, who was in fine form as he emerges as the clear front-runner to partner Maguire in the middle. The jury will be out on him holding firm to prove himself reliable. But then again we’re saying that about everyone at the minute, aren’t we?

Ratings

De Gea 7

Wan-Bissaka 7

Bailly 8

Maguire 6

Shaw 6

McTominay 5

Fred 5

Rashford 6

Fernandes 7

Pogba 7

Martial 7

Subs :

Matic 6

James

Tuanzebe

Goals

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport film 'Too Good To Go Down'. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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