Manchester United ensured the champagne would remain on ice at the Etihad, coming from behind once again to claim three points against Aston Villa.
Manchester City had missed the chance to claim the title at the first time of asking having lost to Chelsea on Saturday afternoon, but defeat for the Red Devils at Villa Park would have confirmed a third crown in four years for Pep Guardiola’s side.
Manchester United started brightly in the opening period, but they were unable to get their noses ahead before Villa started to get a foothold in the game.
The hosts would take the lead in the 24th minute, pressing high up the field to force United into a couple of mistakes at the back, Bertrand Traore turning Victor Lindelof on the edge of the box before rasping past Dean Henderson from a difficult angle.
United have often found themselves trailing at half time before going on to win this season, and within seven minutes of the restart, Douglas Luiz made a clumsy challenge to bring Paul Pogba down in the box. Bruno Fernandes stepped up and did what he has done so often to roll it past Emiliano Martinez to level the scores.
Four minutes later and the Red Devils hauled themselves ahead. Aaron Wan Bissaka fed the ball into the feet of Mason Greenwood, the 19-year-old showing great strength to hold off Tyrone Mings, turning the Villa defender before firing low into the bottom corner.
It wasn’t a game that was brimming with clear-cut chances, but with three minutes to go, the visitors would extend their advantage courtesy of the bang in-form Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan saw an initial shot blocked before the ball was recycled to Marcus Rashford on the right. The England international played a well-weighted cross into the middle of the penalty area, with Cavani making one of his trademark runs across the box before glancing a deft header past Martinez.
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The Villains thought they were about to be handed an almost immediate route back into the game as Oli Watkins appeared to have been brought down by an errant swipe by Dean Henderson. However, the referee did well to spot that the United ‘keeper had in fact pulled out of his challenge, earning Watkins a second yellow card of the afternoon.
The result moves United 10 points behind Man City with a game in hand, though it would take a collapse of epic proportions for any kind of title drama, while more crucially it moves them 12 points ahead of West Ham to all but confirm their qualification for the Champions League.
Speaking to Sky Sports afterwards, Solskjaer felt his side were the better team despite going into the interval trailing: “I’m delighted. It was always going to be difficult after being in Europe, didn’t come back until half four in the morning on Friday. Great reaction at half-time again, even though I felt first half we were the better team, created the better chances but couldn’t find the goal.
“The advantage of being fresh going into a game like this is quite high. We could have scored the first goal, they scored from nothing, with a good goal by the way, but I’m pleased with everyone. I know how hard it is towards the end of a long, long season.”
Villa manager Dean Smith described the decision to give United a penalty, ‘pathetic’, though Solskjaer unsurprisingly thought it was the right decision.
“Yeah, he goes through the back of Paul. He’s really good at shielding the ball and I’m glad Bruno has gone back to his jump.”
Mason Greenwood’s goal was his 16th in the Premier League, seeing him overtake Wayne Rooney as the club’s highest-scoring teenager, and the Norwegian was delighted with the youngster finish.
“He’s top. I was thinking maybe curl it far post, but he goes near post and he’s got all the finishes. Mason had a long night on Thursday, he worked really hard today, and I thought maybe to take him off at half time. He needs some rest, but he showed what he can do.”
Mason Greenwood’s game by numbers vs. Aston Villa:
7 touches in opp. box
3 take-ons (most)
3 ball recoveries
3 duels won
2 shots on target
The 19-year-old can’t stop scoring. pic.twitter.com/3ROVDhYr75
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Asked about delaying City’s coronation, Solskjaer said: “That’s a good thing, that’s the best thing with today. At least I don’t drive into a blue army tonight, we’ll try to delay it as long as we can.”
Harry Maguire was forced off with an injury in the second half, ending the defender’s record of playing every single minute in the Premier League since his move from Leicester City, and the Norweigian was uncertain on the severity of the injury.
“I don’t know. We’ve got to check it. Might be a few weeks, might be a few days. Was his ankle, lower leg.”
United are next in action in just 48 hours time, taking on fellow top four hopefuls Leicester City, before lining up against Liverpool just 48 hours after that in what is a ridiculously hectic schedule by anyone’s standards.
“Massive result. It takes a bit of the pressure away and we can go into the next one confident. We know it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be a physical test these next three days, but we are going to make the most of it. We’ll see how everyone is.”