Manchester United moved level on points with Premier League leaders Liverpool as Bruno Fernandes’ penalty got 2021 off to a winning start against Aston Villa.
An impressive run of seven wins in nine top-flight matches saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side start New Year’s Day in second spot – their highest position at the turn of the year since Sir Alex Ferguson retired as champion in 2012-13.
The United great was in the stands on Friday as the current crop join rivals Liverpool on 33 points, with Fernandes scoring from the spot shortly after Bertrand Traore cancelled out Anthony Martial’s effort to secure a 2-1 win against Villa.
The in-form sides played out an entertaining New Year’s Day encounter at an empty Old Trafford, where fine goalkeeping from David De Gea and Emiliano Martinez prevented the scoreline from being far greater.
United edged the first half and went into the break with a deserved lead as Martial – in for the suspended Edinson Cavani – directed home Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s cross after Tyrone Mings failed to clear.
But Dean Smith’s Villa have been hugely impressive this season and translated early second-half pressure into a goal, with Traore netting after United were caught napping from a quickly-taken free-kick.
The score was not level for long, though, as Fernandes converted from the spot after Douglas Luiz was adjudged to have brought down Paul Pogba in the box.
Play swung from end to end for the remainder of the match and Eric Bailly produced a key block to deny substitute Keinan Davis levelling deep in stoppage time.
Black armbands were worn in memory of former United boss Tommy Docherty at Old Trafford, where Martinez stopped a Fernandes cross-shot in a sharp United start.
Loose play by Villa saw Martinez called into action again in the 10th minute when Martial attempted a curling effort and Harry Maguire got away a header from one of the subsequent corners.
Fred lashed over as United continued strongly but Smith’s men were not overawed, with De Gea producing a great save when John McGinn met a fine Matty Cash cross on the volley.
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Villa’s crosses continued to pose problems but United were a threat on the break, with Pogba bending a first-time strike just wide in the 25th minute shortly before a Mings elbow left him needing treatment.
United continued to push as the half came to a close and Fernandes curled just wide of the far post after spinning away from danger to get away an attempt.
That intent led to a 40th-minute opener. Lovely play from Pogba and Marcus Rashford ended with Wan-Bissaka darting down the right and getting in a cross that Martial directed home when Mings failed to clear.
It was a deserved half-time lead that Villa looked to cancel out early in a bright start to the second period, with Cash whizzing just over and De Gea forced to claw over an Ollie Watkins header.
Anwar El Ghazi went close as the visitors continued brightly, with centre-backs Maguire and Bailly booked for challenges as United wobbled.
Rashford was a threat at the other end but Villa’s renewed push brought a 58th-minute reward. United switched off and Wan-Bissaka was caught out of position, with Jack Grealish collecting a quickly taken free-kick and crossing for Traore to score.
But United needed just three minutes to restore their one-goal advantage as Luiz was adjudged to have brought down Pogba in the box.
The video assistant referee gave Michael Oliver’s decision the green light and Fernandes fired home the spot-kick in the 61st minute.
Play toed and froed for the remainder of the game. Martinez superbly denied Martial and De Gea got down to thwart El Ghazi before Pogba drove agonisingly wide and Watkins glanced a header off target.
Martinez met a superb long-range Fernandes effort with an equally impressive save, but Villa kept going as Mings and substitute Davis headed wide.
De Gea produced an exceptional stoppage-time save from Cash and Bally blocked Davis at the death.
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