If Tuesday’s return of the Champions League represents an unwelcome reminder for Manchester United of what they have lost, their exclusion from Europe’s elite could be shorter than feared. Ignominiously eliminated from continental competition two months ago, their domestic form suggested they would not be back in action straight away.
But maybe they could. After the apparent ruins of a miserable season, Erik ten Hag’s team is on the way to the Champions League places. Their longest winning streak of the campaign produced their best result; A second late winner against Aston Villa in seven weeks meant the gap between them, which could have swelled to 11 points, was instead reduced to five. United’s hopes of overtaking Unai Emery’s team would have been unrealistic at best. The win gave them momentum as Villa suffered three consecutive home defeats.
Not for the first time, Ten Hag had Scott McTominay to thank. The midfielder has emerged as an unlikely successor to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the super substitute who scores crucial goals. After a brace against Brentford and a goal that put United ahead at Wolves, there was a header that flew past Emi Martinez from a cross from Diogo Dalot.
Perhaps it was a day for the much-maligned to take on the role of heroes. McTominay could have left in the summer when he was wanted by West Ham. Andre Onana and Rasmus Hojlund were added but the goalkeeper made a series of errors and the striker had to wait for 14 appearances and 1,026 minutes of Premier League football to open his account in the top flight.
But after the increasingly productive Hojlund opened the scoring, Onana had perhaps his best game in a United shirt. Villa are right to wonder why they only scored a single goal – they were so poor against Chelsea on Wednesday that they exposed United to an onslaught, but the answer partly lay with Onana.
He showed too few such displays of defiance in their goal – or Cameroon’s, considering he didn’t make a single save at the Africa Cup of Nations – but as Villa had 22 shots, 10 of which were on target, he stood his ground.
Within minutes, Onana managed to deflect John McGinn’s powerful shot over the crossbar and block it at the feet of Ollie Watkins. The goalkeeper had a lucky break when Watkins rammed a shot into his chest. Onana seemed to know little about the parade, but he could chalk it up to his positioning.
Even Villa’s equalizer came after an Onana stop that denied Clement Lenglet, before Leon Bailey crossed the ball back into the box and Douglas Luiz tipped a shot home. Although an eighth goal of the season appeared to be a reward for Villa’s persistence, United instead salvaged victory courtesy of their increasingly talismanic replacement. Although McTominay was brought in as a reinforcement for the team as he came on for Marcus Rashford, he burst into the penalty area and made this the most productive season of his career.
United had started with a certain cockiness and the confidence gained from three successive wins was reflected in the way they led. Rasmus Hojlund scored his fifth consecutive Premier League goal; Only Nicolas Anelka has achieved this at a younger age. After reaching Christmas without scoring in the top flight, no one has scored since.
Hojlund made his delayed first comeback against Villa on Boxing Day. His last goal came 17 minutes into a rematch. Harry Maguire evaded Boubakar Kamara and met Bruno Fernandes’ corner with a clear header, and Hojlund was there to volley in. The Dane has gone from famine to feast, and the strongest section of Ten Hag’s team was the first three, who radiated counter zeal. Alejandro Garnacho was irrepressible, a rapid solo run ending with a shot that whistled past the post. Hojlund also seemed to enjoy the atmosphere. Rashford’s decision making or his touch on the ball let him down after a few shots into the box.
However, United are still unable to control the games. The quest for stability continues and was made even more difficult by the loss of Luke Shaw at half-time. With Lisandro Martinez already out, United could lose their two best defenders. Victor Lindelof was forced to play at left-back in the second half, but Ten Hag should at least take comfort in his team’s commitment.
They lived on nerves at times, relying either on Onana or a series of blocks from their defenders as Villa pushed on. Emery’s side appeared intent on making defeats to Newcastle and Chelsea a thing of the past and making Villa Park a fortress for them again. Nevertheless, it was a second home for United for a long time. A quarter of a century after a United goalkeeper starred and scored his number 11 in a dramatic win at Villa Park – Peter Schmeichel and Ryan Giggs in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final – history repeated itself in one sense. And although they don’t know whether fourth or fifth place will be enough to get back into the Champions League, they are on the right track.