Manchester United produce latest comeback at Aston Villa

Fernandes, Greenwood and white-hot Cavani complete turnaround to keep City waiting

Manchester United’s Edinson Cavani celebrates scoring his side’s third against Aston Villa. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/PA

Manchester United’s Edinson Cavani celebrates scoring his side’s third against Aston Villa. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/PA

 

Aston Villa 1 Manchester United 3

For a moment Manchester City must have thought their title triumph would be confirmed. Manchester United appeared to be wilting under the strain of a hectic schedule. But for the ninth time in this season’s Premier League, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side staged a second-half turnaround. City will have to wait; and so will Villa, who still have not beaten United in the league at Villa Park since 1995.

Bertrand Traoré’s lovely strike fired Dean Smith’s team into the lead but Bruno Fernandes equalised from a penalty won by Paul Pogba early in the second half and, four minutes later, Marcus Greenwood shot United in front. The visitors, previously bedraggled, ran out as comfortable winners as Edinson Cavani came off the bench to make it 3-1.

However, the match ended on a worrisome note for United and England, as Harry Maguire limped off in the 72nd minute.

This was the first first of three league matches in five days for United, or six in a 17-day period culminating with the Europa League final in Gdansk. Solskjær has a big squad and will have to manage it carefully; he has no other centre-back of Maguire’s standard.

Things had begun gently for United. The way Villa started made one wonder whether they believed they could win. Rather than rip into the visitors to test their freshness, Villa looked strangely meek, allowing United to ease their way into the game and dominate the first five minutes. Luke Shaw was encouraged to raid down the left several times, with United’s defenders afforded the time to serve him with long diagonal passes. Greenwood and Marcus Rashford each had half-chances to open the scoring.

Soon Villa roused themselves. It did not take much for them to make United look jaded and sloppy. Anwar El Ghazi signalled Villa’s growing menace by unloading their first shot, drilled wide from 20 yards. As Villa pressed with new intensity, with Ollie Watkins leading from the front as ever, United’s poise crumbled. They bungled countless passes and were frequently caught in possession. John McGinn and Douglas Luiz gained control in midfield, too strong and sharp for Fred and Scott McTominay, while United’s creative players, especially Fernandes, merely drifted through the game.

Still, United could have taken the lead in the 21st minute when Shaw, their most dynamic player, burst forward again, but Rashford could not adjust his feet quickly enough to divert a cross by Greenwood into the net from six yards. That was nothing compared to the sluggishness that helped Villa to open the scoring moments later.

Mason Greenwood celebrates after giving Manchester United the lead against Aston Villa. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty/AFP
Mason Greenwood celebrates after giving Manchester United the lead against Aston Villa. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty/AFP

United lost possession three times in a matter of seconds before Traoré arrowed a wonderful shot into the net from an acute angle. First Matt Targett charged down a pass by Greenwood deep in United’s territory; then McGinn seized on the ball as McTominay and Fred dithered outside their own area, helping it on to Luiz; and then Victor Lindelöf managed only to nudge the ball into the path off Traoré after being given an opportunity to clear it. An exemplary demonstration of decisiveness was immediately provided by Traoré, whose finish left Dean Henderson with no chance.

Villa were seldom in trouble for the remainder of the first half. Solskjær knew what to do. His team have, after all, got themselves into – and out of - similar situations many times already this season. The manager resisted any temptation to make personnel changes during the interval and instead coaxed an improvement from the players who started, who came out for the second period with renewed vim and intent. Mind you, they might have found themselves two goals down if El Ghazi had connected better with a shot from the edge of the area in the 50th minute after a counterattack led by Ross Barkley. That was a let-off for the visitors. Moments later they were gifted a penalty, as Paul Pogba manoeuvered his body between the ball and Luiz, who clunked into the Frenchman from behind, leaving the referee with a straightforward decision. Fernandes sent Emi Martínez the wrong way from the spot.

Villa needed to steady themselves so as not to spur United on more. But they were far too soft four minutes later when Aaron Wan-Bissaka chugged down the right and supplied Greenwood at the right-hand side of the area. The 19-year-old made a confused bystander of Tyrone Mings as he turned nimbly past the England defender and cracked a low shot in at the near post.

Villa tried to retort swiftly and United endured a nervous wait on the hour as the VAR checked for a possible handball by Greenwood after a cross by El Ghazi. Villa continued to stretch the visiting defence, whose xertions eventually took a toll, with Maguire limping off after a collision with El Ghazi in the 72nd minute. That brought an end to an impressive record for Maguire, who until then had not missed a minute of league action for United since joining them in August 2019. That injury could yet have repercussions both for United and England. But at least Cavani ensured a positive result for United here by nodding a cross by Rashford into the net. - Guardian

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