MANCHESTER, England (AP) - Bruno Fernandes scoring a penalty has become a very familiar sight for Manchester United. Being among the Premier League frontrunners has not been seen in recent years for the fallen giant.
United went level on points with leader Liverpool with a 2-1 victory that ended Aston Villa’s five-game unbeaten run on Friday. The win was secured by Fernandes scoring his ninth spotkick since making his debut 11 months ago.
While United is still behind Liverpool on goal difference, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side has won one more and has the team looking well-placed to mount a challenge for a first title since 2013.
“We are building something important - we know that,” Fernandes said. “I see in the stands the last two or three minute, everyone shouting and hoping we don’t concede the goal and take care of the ball. We have to build this more and more.”
Of course, there weren’t many to shout. With Manchester in near-lockdown and games closed to fans, just a few hundred key personnel - including players - were allowed into Old Trafford on New Year’s Day.
One of them was the most legendary figure in British football: Alex Ferguson, who produced United’s record-extending 20th English title before retiring eight years ago.
A day after his 79th birthday, the Scot saw Anthony Martial head United in front in the 40th minute at the end of a counterattack started by Paul Pogba. And it was Pogba who won the penalty - from the restart after Bertrand Traoré’s equalizer - that allowed Fernandes to clinch the win in the 61st minute.
Such has been United’s decline in the post-Ferguson years that only once - in 2018 under Jose Mourinho - has United finished second and then it was 19 points behind Manchester City.
And when Solskjaer opened 2020 with United 27 points behind eventual champion Liverpool, the manager’s days looked numbered.
“It’s such a big difference when you look 12 months back,” Solskjaer said. “It’s a good position to be in but we need to improve and get better.”
Key to United’s transformation last season that secured a third-place finish was Fernandes arriving in the January transfer window.
But it is the team’s costliest player - Pogba - that Solskjaer will need to be making a consistent impact if the trophy is to be collected.
“His physical presence is important for us,” Solskjaer said.
After gaining possession five minutes before halftime inside his own half, Pogba headed the ball to Marcus Rashford, who flicked it for Aaron Wan-Bissaka to take down the right flank. A cross was then sent in for Martial to meet with a stooping header planted into the net for his third goal in six games.
It’s not easy breaching Villa’s defense. This was only the second conceded in six games.
So much of Villa’s threat was coming on the left flank from Jack Grealish. At the start of the second half he beat Wan-Bissaka and sent in a cross which led to Ollie Watkins’ header being turned over by goalkeeper David de Gea.
But De Gea was beaten by Traoré from close range after Douglas Luiz let Grealish’s cross go past him. The move started with a quickly taken free kick by John McGinn inside Villa’s half that caught out United.
But the lead didn’t last long after Pogba tangled with Luiz’s shoulders and almost appeared to trip himself over. But the penalty survived a VAR review for Fernandes to convert for his 11th league goal of the season.
Fernandes did have a chance to extend the lead from open play with a shot pushed over that ensured a nervy conclusion to protect the lead.
In stoppage time, De Gea kept out a powerful shot from Matty Cash and defender Eric Bailly scrambled a clearance to prevent Keinan Davis leveling.
No wonder Bailly was so triumphant, roaring at the final whistle. Fernandes went over to embrace him.
“It’s a fantastic block at the end,” Solskjaer said. “I didn’t enjoy the last 10 minutes that much because I think we could have seen out the game out in a better way.”
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