If the return of the Champions League on Tuesday offers Manchester United an unwelcome reminder of what they have lost, their exile from the European elite may be briefer than was feared. Cast ignominiously out of continental competition two months ago, their domestic form suggested they would not be making an immediate form.
But perhaps they might. From what seemed the wreckage of a wretched season, Erik ten Hag’s team are on a charge towards the Champions League places. Their longest winning run of the campaign brought 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, has instead been sliced to five. Lose and United’s hopes of overhauling Unai Emery’s team would have been unrealistic at best. Victory gave them the momentum while Villa have three straight home defeats.
Not for the first time, Ten Hag had Scott McTominay to thank. The midfielder has emerged as the unlikely successor to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the super-sub who scores crucial goals. After a double against Brentford and a goal to put United ahead at Wolves came a header, planted past Emi Martinez from Diogo Dalot’s cross.
Perhaps it was a day for the much-maligned to assume the roles as heroes. McTominay could have left in the summer, when he was wanted by West Ham. Andre Onana and Rasmus Hojlund joined, but the goalkeeper made a string of errors and the striker had to wait 14 appearances and 1,026 minutes of Premier League football to open his account in the top flight.
But, after the increasingly prolific Hojlund opened the scoring, Onana had perhaps his best game in a United shirt. Villa are entitled to wonder how they only scored once – so poor against Chelsea on Wednesday, they subjected United to an onslaught, but the answer in part lay with Onana.
He has delivered too few such shows of defiance in their goal – or Cameroon’s, given that he did not make a single save in the Africa Cup of Nations – but as Villa had 22 shots, 10 of them on target, he stood tall.
In the space of a couple of minutes, Onana excelled to tip John McGinn’s rasping shot over the bar and to block at the feet of Ollie Watkins. The goalkeeper had a stroke of fortune when Watkins slammed a shot into his chest, Onana seemingly knowing little about the save, but he could chalk it up to his positioning.
Even Villa’s leveller stemmed from an Onana stop, thwarting Clement Lenglet before Leon Bailey crossed the ball back into the box and Douglas Luiz steered a shot in. If an eighth goal of the season seemed a reward for Villa’s persistence, United instead salvaged victory courtesy of their increasingly talismanic substitute. McTominay may have been sent on to shore the side up, as he came on for Marcus Rashford, but he stormed into the box to make this the most prolific season of his career.
United had started with something of a swagger, the confidence earned in three consecutive wins reflected in the way they led. Rasmus Hojlund scored for a fifth consecutive Premier League game; only Nicolas Anelka has done so at a younger age. After he reached Christmas without scoring in the top flight, no one has scored more goals since.
Hojlund’s belated first capped a comeback against Villa on Boxing Day. His latest arrived 17 minutes into a rematch. Harry Maguire eluded Boubacar Kamara to meet Bruno Fernandes’s corner with a firm header and Hojlund was on hand to volley in. The Dane has gone from famine to feast and the strongest department of Ten Hag’s team was the front three, exuding counter-attacking zeal. Alejandro Garnacho was irrepressible, a surging solo run ending with a shot that whistled past the post. Hojlund, too, seemed to relish the atmosphere. Rashford’s decision-making or touch let him down after a couple of bursts into the box.
Yet United remain unable to control games. A quest for solidity continues and was rendered harder by the loss of Luke Shaw at half-time. With Lisandro Martinez already out, it could deprive United of their two best defenders. Victor Lindelof had to negotiate the second half at left-back but Ten Hag should at least take solace from the spirit his side showed.
They lived on their nerves at times, relying either on Onana or a series of blocks from their defenders as Villa powered on. Emery’s side looked intent on consigning the defeats to Newcastle and Chelsea to the past, to making Villa Park a fortress for them again. Yet it was a home from home for United for a long time. A quarter of a century after a United goalkeeper starred and their No 11 scored in a dramatic win at Villa Park – Peter Schmeichel and Ryan Giggs in 1999’s FA Cup semi-final – history repeated itself in that respect. While they do not know if fourth or fifth place will be enough to get them back into the Champions League, they are rushing in the right direction.