Manchester United moved to within a point of fourth-placed Leicester with their fourth successive league victory, but Aston Villa’s relegation worries deepened. Bruno Fernandes (celebrating with Paul Pogba, right) opened the scoring and the other goals came from Mason Greenwood and Pogba.
By the end of the night Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reborn Manchester United may well have crushed Aston Villa regardless of the decision dealt by the fickle eye of the video assistant monitors, but the relegation strugglers will always wonder if it might have been different.
They never seemed to recover from the penalty call given against them in the first half – the like of which the concept of Var was surely created to correct in the hopeful days that preceded its introduction.
Yet when the moment came, the big Var screen in the empty Villa Park only offered referee Jonathan Moss its validation. For Villa, the penalty won and converted by Bruno Fernandes, whose chief contribution to it all was standing on the leg of defender Ezri Konsa, was a blow from which they never recovered.
On the club’s official Twitter feed a picture of the moment of contact was posted, accompanied by the pondering face emoji, although if one was to describe Dean Smith’s face in the minutes following the decision it would be right to say there was much less equivocation.
After that, United were excellent in the seventh win of a 10-game unbeaten run that has transformed their season if not their league position.
When they were jeered by their own fans at Old Trafford on Jan 22 having lost to Burnley, United were fifth, which is where they are with four games left to play, albeit within one point of fourth-placed Leicester City.
was another goal from Mason Greenwood, his 16th of the season, hit with a force that will make defenders wonder whether they dare let this 18-year-old swing a boot anywhere in range. He is only the second teenager after Wayne Rooney to score in three consecutive Premier League games.
Overall, United make sense again: a hustle to their attacking trio that creates opportunities and a steady hand in midfield, from where Paul Pogba stroked home the third of the night.
For Smith this may have been a game from which he never expected a return, but all the same, the decision of Var Graham Scott to award the Fernandes penalty means that the clouds refuse to part for Villa. They go into their last four league games with just two points from the previous 10. Even Bournemouth are above them now in the table with the gap to 17th four points for Villa. The team so hastily assembled last summer look to have lost what little faith they had.
By half-time, United’s forward line had found its aggression and was picking its moments to
Precision finish: Paul Pogba (left) slots United’s third goal at Villa Park last night
counter-attack – the second goal a marvellous piece of opportunism, clinically finished by Greenwood. But there was a point in the first half when Villa had their tails up, the better chances were theirs and then with the award of that penalty the game changed.
It was a bad original call by Moss, a situation made much worse by the decision by Scott to allow the penalty to stand. In real time it looked like it might just meet the threshold. Fernandes ran on to the ball and then, placing a foot on top of it, with Konsa coming in to challenge him, attempted to spin through 360 degrees. There was contact with the Villa defender. But what was the contact?
That is the examination of detail that Var allows, a consideration of whose impact affected who in those collisions that take place in the blink of an eye. It was unquestionably Fernandes’s right boot coming down on the right ankle of Konsa that was the meaningful engagement between the two players.
Yet this crucial part seemed to be missed, first by Moss and then by Scott. Hard to say how.
Fernandes dispatched the ball past Pepe Reina from the penalty spot and the game changed.
Before then, Villa had worked United hard, chasing down the spaces that Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof tried to pass the ball into and the away side struggled to move out of their own half. The Egyptian Trezeguet pinched the ball from Pogba after 26 minutes and strode forward to dispatch a shot that clipped David de Gea’s left post. Jack Grealish, for whom there are hopes of a move to Old Trafford, had a chance at the back post on his left foot from which he should have scored.
A goal behind and the game changed – for a team like Villa it must have felt familiar. Grealish struggled to make an impact and John McGinn would be substituted before the end.
Tyrone Mings was caught out badly in the centre of the pitch, where Anthony Martial forced him off the ball and United counterattacked. Greenwood supplied a fearsome finish.
The Pogba goal came from Fernandes’s corner. The Frenchman picked his spot beautifully. United are now the first team since Liverpool in 1987 to win four consecutive top-flight games by a margin of three or more goals.
As for Villa, by the end they were nowhere and Smith was making substitutions with Sunday’s game against Crystal Palace in mind. If they are going to survive then they surely have to win that one.