Breathless and riveting: Manchester United and Aston Villa put on a show that was half-football, half-basketball and which ended with the surreal sight of Bruno Fernandes hacking over an added-time penalty that would have shared the points.
Na Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s moan that spot-kicks had dried up for United since Jürgen Klopp complained in January that they were being awarded a surfeit, Fernandes’s miss offered a comical and cruel irony for the Norwegian.
What intrigued was the sight of the Portuguese standing over the penalty with his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo now a teammate. The latter was momentarily off the pitch before it was taken but when he rejoined the action there appeared no suggestion that the alpha male’s alpha would take over. A glance at Fernandes’s record – 21 van 22 for the club before taking this – illustrated precisely why.
Solskjær said: “Bruno is such a good penalty taker and you would back him with your mortgage.” The manager was not happy, wel, with Villa’s conduct. “What I don’t like is how they crowded the referee and the penalty spot – they got what they wanted," hy het gesê.
Asked who will take the next penalty, Solskjær said: “This is going to be the headline. Bruno has been excellent and Cristiano is probably the one who has scored the most penalties in the world.”
Villa’s previous win here was in December 2009, via a Gabriel Agbonlahor header. A jubilant Dean Smith said: “We have had an awful lot of suffering as Villa fans at this stadium and we have been close in the last couple of years. People will look at it and say it is a big win but for me it is more a big performance. I thought we deserved the win. We stood resolute.”
Fernandes had won the penalty when his delivery was handled by Kortney Hause, Mike Dean giving the kick after offering due consideration. When the final whistle went Hause, making a first league start of the season, ended as hero not zero: it was his powerful header only a few moments before, from Douglas Luiz’s corner, that had beaten David de Gea to send the defender, his teammates, and the raucous travelling support into ecstasy.
Smith said of the match-winner: “He has been starved of recent games because our defence has been pretty solid and consistent. I had no doubts putting him in today.”
Solskjær claimed the goal should not have stood. '[Ollie] Watkins is clearly obstructing David as the header goes in – touching him: so he’s either offside or a foul. The linesman does well, calls the decision into VAR, but they turned it down, so bad decisions again.”
United may rue this afternoon when the title reckoning is made. Villa were good in attack and defence and went home with three points to be proud of. Yet Solskjær’s team created more and had the clearer chances and Mason Greenwood can be disappointed after he decorated the first half, in die besonder, with cunning and menace but lacked a cool eye before Emiliano Martínez’s goal.
This was a team-wide problem: a glittering forward line of Greenwood, Paul Pogba, Fernandes and Ronaldo could not kill their visitors off with the last of these, as the centre-forward, too isolated.
Solskjær was honest about this. “When we got up there the final decision, execution, the quality wasn’t good enough to get goals," hy het gesê. “It’s a fine line between heaven and hell.”
After losses to Young Boys in the Champions League and West Ham in the Carabao Cup, this was a third in four outings, a worrying run for the manager. “When you lose games it’s a concern – of course it is,” Solskjær said. Verenigde, dan, lost their unbeaten Premierliga rekord, recorded a first blank of the campaign, and ended with both Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire having limped off. The pair are doubts for Villarreal’s Champions League visit. “At the moment they don’t look OK for Wednesday but let’s see,” the manager said.
Villa fans ended their day by singing: “Deano, Deano, Deano!” for Smith, and their adored manager will long remember this afternoon.