Manchester United (3), Aston Villa (2) – Our Villans take the lead but the Red Devils roar back and take all three points

Tuesday, Dec 26th, 20:00 – Old Trafford

Referee: Craig Pawson

We Villa fans were wondering how our Villans would respond to the disappointment of missing the opportunity to sit in first place of the Premier League when we failed to put lowly Sheffield to the sword.  That we snuck a point at the end gave us some confidence that we could respond positively against Manchester United whose problems, and expectations, were far more dire.

Our game strategy worked like a charm as we took advantage of their edginess and converted two opportunistic goals.  Our first real chance came about because of a rash kick by Bruno Fernandes that caught Leander Dendoncker in the chest.  The freekick was near the right touchline and John McGinn prepared to take. 

As usual, Austin MacPhee, Villa’s set-piece coach had a wonderful recipe ready.  To start with, Leon Bailey positioned himself right behind André Onana, Man U’s goalie, as a distraction.  Bailey made sure not to do anything that could get him penalised, but he was likely an influence in what happened after.  The other MacPhee factor was to ensure our Villans did not break the line (offside line) before their captain took the kick. In fact, Ollie Watkins positioned himself well behind his teammates knowing that he would be the fastest and the most likely to reach the cross when it came.

McGinn’s cross had lots of whip and pace, and was perfectly located, too far from Onana to intercede and heading for the far corner if not touched.  Sure enough, Watkins almost made contact and the goalie waved a foot as the ball came down.  Neither our striker nor the keeper made contact and the ball bounced from the turf into the corner of the net.  The Red Devils looked stunned.  They were behind again.  Manchester United 0, Aston Villa 1 in the 21st minute.  In the season to date, nobody had come from behind to beat our Villans.

Five minutes later, the fans at Old Trafford were to be further astounded.  From another set-piece, a corner from the right taken by McGinn, Lenglet, pealed off from his starting position near the penalty spot, pirouetted and headed toward a position left of the left post.  The ball was on its way there and he rose and dropped a header into the mix in front of Onana. 

Dendoncker was right there and the fastest to respond. He applied a perfect flick that redirected the ball over the goalie’s left arm and into the net.  Manchester United 0, Aston Villa 2 in the 26thminute.  More shock for the red shirted players and their fans.  This, coming after losing their last game at home to Bournemouth, was a nightmare.

To their credit, the home team continued to play at the same energetic pace they had set from the kickoff and gave little indication of feeling overwhelmed. Still, their impatience made it difficult for them to deal with Villa’s well executed offside trap.

Even so, Marcus Rashford and Christian Eriksen both came close with snap shots from distance, and Emi Martinez showed his class by being well-positioned and handling both efforts with aplomb.

Still holding a two goal advantage at the halftime break must have made Unai Emery and his team feel good about the first half performance.  The team selection seemed to have justified itself.  Carlos, who did not play against Sheffield United had been very solid while Lenglet seemed more comfortable on the ball (and had assisted on a goal).  The rest of the backline had played faultless defense and supported the team well going forward. 

Dendoncker had more than justified his inclusion by assisting on both goals and doing a very solid job keeping an excellent Man U midfield of Mainoo, Eriksen, and Fernandes at bay.  Surprisingly, the Belgian appeared more effective than McGinn and, especially, Luiz.  Other than the goal and assist, our captain and Luiz had both seemed less able to gain and retain possession and provide good service to our forwards with the result that the Man U backline were usually able to intercept any probing passes before we could get the ball to our forwards. The goals, indeed, were both from set-pieces.

Evans and Wan-Bissaka had both prevented dangerous looking forays and turned them into instant counterattacks.  With a dearth of midfield creativity on the bench (Tielemans being unavailable through injury) and Ramsey appearing to be lacking his pre-injury fitness, Emery must have been concerned about closing out the game.  Indeed, the best hope our Villans had to complete the win was to get that third goal as soon as possible and we almost did.

Within 60 seconds of the second-half kickoff, Ollie was a whisker away from heading in a third goal and/or getting a kick in the head (which would have been rewarded by a penalty kick).  A Digne cross was overhit and Dalot made a big mess of heading clear.  Bailey backed up to the edge of the area on the right, brought the errant header under control, and caressed a perfect chip into the area between Varane and Wan-Bissaka.  Ollie raced in and dove at the ball only for Varane to extend his left leg and, with his foot, surgically removed the ball inches before Ollie’s head arrived.  Our leading scorer was in the back of the net and the ball was heading back to Digne.  A goal at that moment and our Villans would have been up 3-0 and Man U’s fans would have been deflated, especially after the defeat by Bournemouth, also 3-0.

Instead, Man U had the ball in the back of the Villa net a couple of minutes later only for VAR to find the play marginally offside.  This seemed to give them heart, suggesting that Villa’s defense was not impregnable.  Even so, the hosts had only managed one shot on goal in the second half until our two Brazilians combined to give them life. 

Carrying the ball forward in his own half, Carlos casually passed to Luiz ahead of him. Luiz, was a touch slower than Fernandes in moving to the pass, and found himself out-hustled to the ball just inside Villa’s half.  The Portuguese star immediately found Rashford to his left and Marcus already had a step on Konsa. As the England star reached the penalty area he saw that the speedy Garnacho was racing, just behind, to his right.  The pass was perfect for the Argentinian 19-year-old who immediately shot across the diving Martinez.  The ball skimmed off Emi’s feet but not enough to make a difference and it entered the net.  This time, no offside.  Manchester United 1, Aston Villa 2.

Our Villans did not appear to be overly distressed and, in fact, came close to regaining their advantage within 30 seconds.  An attack down the left saw Ramsey feed Moreno who fired over a low cross that Bailey, who had ghosted into the center of the penalty area, met on the volley and shot to Onana’s left only for the goalie to dive and save brilliantly.

The combination of good fortune at each end of the field gave Man U and their fans heart and they upped the tempo of the game.  When Fernandes’s cross from the right deflected off a defender, Garnacho swung a boot at the bouncing ball and it looked to be another test for Martinez as he dove left only for Carlos, compounding his error on the first goal, to attempt to block the shot.  Instead, he only succeeded in deflecting the ball into the opposite corner of the net. Emi looked disconsolate as he landed.  Manchester United 2, Aston Villa 2 in the 71st minute. 

Again, our Villans responded well.   Again, it was Moreno charging down the leftwing, only this time he cut outside to the goal line and pulled back for McGinn standing on the edge of Man U’s crowded 6-yard box.  John was able to take a step back and hook the ball to the open right side of the net with Onana scrambling.  This time it was Evans who extended a long leg and saved a certain goal and, again, it was less than a minute since the home side had scored.

At some level, both teams could feel a sense of destiny!  Sure enough, the only missing component for the Red Devils was a goal for the unfortunate Rasmus Højlund who had, so far, failed to score in the 14 Premier League games he had appeared in.  That changed when a corner brushed-off a head on its way to hitting John McGinn’s thigh.  The ball bounced a yard, or so, away and was still in the air when the opportunistic striker turned on it and lashed it goalwards.

Martinez was well sighted and might have saved if not for the pace and direction.  The ball hit the inside of Emi’s righthand post and ricocheted into the back of the net.  Manchester United 3, Aston Villa 2 in the 82nd. Again, there was an immediate response from our Villans with Konsa finding Diaby with a chance to cross from the goal line on the right only to slip and slice the cross over the bar.  Then our Villans worked our way down the left and fed McGinn in the penalty area with a chance to shoot.  With Eriksen desperately rushing back, John pulled the ball away to reset only to slip and lose his balance.  It was that kind of game.

Emery took one more roll with the dice, substituting Durán and Iroegbunam for McGinn and Dendoncker in the 86th minute.  There was to be no last gasp equaliser this time.

Man Utd: Onana, Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Evans, Diogo Dalot, Mainoo (McTominay 81′), Eriksen (Gore 94′), Garnacho (Mejbri 95′), Bruno Fernandes, Rashford (Antony 80′), Højlund (Kambwala 89′)

Unused Subs: Bayindir, Reguilón, Antony, Pellistri, van de Beek, McTominay, Gore, Mejbri, Kambwala

Aston Villa: Martínez, Konsa, Diego Carlos, Lenglet, Digne (Moreno 50′), Dendoncker (Iroegbunam 86′), Douglas Luiz, Bailey (Zaniolo 77′), McGinn (Durán 86′), Ramsey (Diaby 77′), Watkins

Unused Subs: Torres, Moreno, Chambers, Diaby, Zaniolo, Durán, Marschall, Iroegbunam, Proctor

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