Breathless and captivating: Manchester United and Aston Villa put on a half-football, half-basketball spectacle that ended with the surreal sight of Bruno Fernandes hacking a penalty in added time that would have shared the points.
After Ole Gunnar Solskjær moan that shots on goal have dried up for United since Jürgen Klopp complained in January that they were receiving excess, Fernandes’ miss offered the Norwegian a comedic and cruel irony. .
What intrigued was the sight of the Portuguese standing above the penalty spot with his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo now teammate. The latter was momentarily off the field before he was caught, but when he joined the action, there was no suggestion that the alpha of the dominant male would take over. A look at Fernandes’ record – 21 of 22 for the club before taking that – illustrated precisely why.
Solskjær said: “Bruno is such a good penalty taker and you would back him up with your mortgage.” The manager was not happy, however, with Villa’s conduct. “What I don’t like is the way they cluttered the referee and the penalty spot – they got what they wanted,” he said.
When asked who would take the next penalty, Solskjær said: “It will be the big title. Bruno has been excellent and Cristiano is probably the one who has scored the most penalties in the world.”
Villa’s previous victory here was in December 2009, via a header from Gabriel Agbonlahor. A jubilant Dean Smith said: “We have suffered tremendously as Villa fans at this stadium and have been close for the past two years. People will look at it and say it’s a big win but for me it’s more of a big performance. I thought we deserved the victory. We have remained determined.
Fernandes had won the penalty when his delivery was handled by Kortney Hause, Mike Dean kicking after offering special attention. When the final whistle went Hause, making a first start to the league season, ended as a non-zero hero: it was his powerful header moments before, from the corner of Douglas Luiz, who had beaten David de Gea to send the defender, his teammates, and the noisy travel support into ecstasy.
Smith said of the match winner: “He’s been deprived of recent games because our defense has been pretty strong and consistent. I had no doubt to include him today.
Solskjær said the goal shouldn’t have held up. “[Ollie] Watkins clearly obstructs David as the head goes in – touching him, so he’s either offside or like a foul. The linesman is doing fine, calls the decision in VAR, but they turned it down, so bad decisions again. “
United can regret this afternoon when the titles count is done. Villa was good in attack and defense and came home with three points he can be proud of. Still, Solskjær’s side created more and had the clearest chances and Mason Greenwood may be disappointed after decorating the first half, in particular, with cunning and threat, but missed with a cold eye before Emiliano Martínez’s goal.
It was a squad-wide problem: a brilliant front line from Greenwood, Paul Pogba, Fernandes and Ronaldo couldn’t kill their visitors with the last of them, as the center-forward, too isolated .
Solskjær was honest about it. “When we got up there the final decision, the execution, the quality was not good enough to score goals,” he said. “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, it was a third in four outings, a worrying race for the manager. “When you lose games it’s a concern – of course it is,” Solskjær said. United went on to lose their unbeaten Premier League record, set a campaign white first and ended with Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire limping. The pair doubt Villarreal’s visit to the Champions League. “At the moment they don’t look good for Wednesday, but let’s see,” said the manager.
Villa fans ended their day singing: “Deano, Deano, Deano! for Smith, and their beloved manager will long remember this afternoon.