Was this the moment when even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s many sceptics start to wonder if his Manchester United side, written off and maligned not so long ago, really are capable of mounting a sustained title challenge?
By the end of a thoroughly absorbing game of football in which Aston Villa had further burnished their own reputation, the Premier League table had United level on points with leaders Liverpool thanks to an eighth win in their past 10 top flight outings. That 6-1 capitulation at home to Tottenham suddenly feels a long time ago indeed and, watching this, it was hard to believe it is the same team that started the season so abysmally.
Yet another penalty from Bruno Fernandes – whom United probably have more than anyone to thank for their renaissance – was enough to win it after Bertrand Traore had cancelled out Anthony Martial’s first half header but he was not his team’s only hero on the night. Paul Pogba excelled, Aaron Wan-Bissaka similarly and the impressive David De Gea pulled off a number of fine saves, including a late piledriver from Matthew Cash.
Anyone doubting how much United want this need only have witnessed Eric Bailly hurling himself in front of Keinan Davis’ shot as opportunity knocked for the Villa substitute in the fifth minute of added time.
There was a minute’s silence before kick-off for Tommy Docherty, who passed away on New Year’s Eve, and the former United and Villa manager would have enjoyed this, not least the goal that gave United the lead towards the end of a competitive, entertaining first period. It involved two of United’s best performers, Paul Pogba and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and will have pleased Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on several levels. Pogba often stands accused of losing possession in vulnerable positions, Wan-Bissaka has been criticised for not getting forward enough and, when he does, lacking quality in his delivery and Anthony Martial has been rebuked for not attacking the six yard box enough. So the goal was a riposte to all of those things.