Manchester United supporters deserve to dream: Could they be in the mix for their first league title in eight years? Might 2021 bring No. 21? This may be premature but at the turn of the year they are joint top with Liverpool, who they face in two weeks time.
It was that fixture at Anfield last season that finally gave Liverpool fans the license to harden their belief that that was their year; that their own 30-year wait may be heading towards its end. Could this season’s fixture provide United supporters with further reason to think that maybe this strange and unpredictable season could be triumphal for them.
If they are to beat Liverpool then they will have to put to rest Jurgen Klopp’s side’s remarkable unbeaten home run in the Premier League dating back to April 2017. But performances like the one that brought victory against an adventurous and determined Aston Villa demonstrate that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team are growing in force.
Villa victory was hard-earned
This was a win that United had to fight for during a pulsating affair. Villa were deservedly level after Bertrand Traore cancelled out Anthony Martial’s opener but a somewhat controversial penalty, converted by Bruno Fernandes, swung the game back in the home side’s favour.
It means that United are level with Liverpool on 33 points having won eight of their last 10 league games. This was a display of the United collective: Paul Pogba, despite playing out on the left, excelled, Aaron Wan-Bissaka did likewise on the opposite flank while the impressive David De Gea pulled off a number of fine saves, including a late piledriver from Matty Cash to ensure the three points.
The 6-1 capitulation to Tottenham Hotspur suddenly feels a long time ago - so does United’s poor league form at Old Trafford; they have now not lost their in the league since November 1 against Arsenal.
If United are to seriously mount a title challenge then they must turn their home stadium into a fortress once more - somewhat difficult given the absence of fans but, as shown here, high-quality football at a quick tempo can do wonders nevertheless.
Step by step for Solskjaer
Nevertheless, Solskjaer is only taking it game by game. There is a League Cup semi final against Manchester City to come in four days which now steals the United manager’s focus. Yet, he does possess a deep enough squad that can lead to effective rotation.
“I think the league and the season is going to be so tight anyway,” Solskjaer admitted. “There are going to be strange results. We have to keep improving and since Project Restart started we have been consistent. Every time you win a game you take it one step further. The first game is just as important as the last game of the season, they all count the same.”
Solskjaer, however, was not happy with the fashion in which his side saw out the game - there were nervy moments as the visitors mounted a late challenge for the points. But this is a key difference for United at the moment: De Gea seems to be in his best form for some time, Harry Maguire keeps playing and keeps delivering while Eric Bailly, playing successive league games for the first time in two years, complements the back-line well.
Grealish and El Ghazi are driving force
What made United’s victory all the more impressive was that it came against a team in good form themselves and who rightly have their sights set on a European place given the key additions of Emi Martinez and Ollie Watkins that Dean Smith brought in during the summer.
Sixth-placed Villa had only conceded three away goals in the league before arriving at Old Trafford and although they will feel aggrieved with the awarding of the penalty that brought United’s winner - Smith believed Pogba had tripped himself up - they can certainly take some solace from their performance.
Again it was the imperious Jack Grealish who shone with his footwork and ambitions of driving this easy-on-the eye Villa team forward. Likewise Anwar El Ghazi was equally effective on the right while John McGinn displayed his usual Duracell bunny energy alongside his passing ability.
It all led to an absorbing contest between two teams who enjoy attacking with pace. One downside was that Villa couldn’t hold on to parity for longer than two minutes although Cash, another fine performer at right back, did have a chance to equalise at the death but was denied. Still Villa do have two games in hand which could be an advantage.
Going off this, Villa will also be hoping to bring an end to their own wait of 10 years without European football.