Goal difference is all that separates Liverpool and Manchester United at the top after the Red Devils’ 2-1 win over Aston Villa.
A Villa side looking to move third in the table always promised to pose a tricky test for United and so it proved in an open encounter.
The visitors appeared to be in the ascendancy after Bertrand Traore’s 58th-minute effort cancelled out Anthony Martial’s first-half opener.
However, United’s lead was re-established through Fernandes’ ninth Premier League penalty since the start of February 2020 – his tally in that time two more than any other player.
And it was enough for United to further boost their title hopes, with only goal difference keeping Liverpool top of the pile.
— Premier League (@premierleague) January 1, 2021
Goalkeepers Emiliano Martinez and David de Gea were each forced into important early saves from Martial and John McGinn respectively, but the better opportunities came United’s way, with Fred and Paul Pogba spurning presentable chances.
Fernandes bent wide but United’s first goal of the new year came from Martial, who rounded off a neat move with a stooping header from Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s right-wing cross.
Only the tremendous reflexes of De Gea prevented Ollie Watkins from levelling the contest, the Spain international producing heroics to turn Watkins’ header from Jack Grealish over the crossbar.
Anwar El Ghazi then lashed a volley narrowly wide of the near post before Villa got the goal their second-half efforts deserved, a quick free-kick ending with Grealish’s low cross finding Traore at the far post to tuck home.
But parity lasted little under four minutes as Fernandes powered his penalty into the bottom-left corner after Douglas Luiz had clipped Pogba following a throw-in.
Martial stung the palms of Martinez who, after Pogba produced an errant finish from close range, tipped a marvellous Fernandes effort onto the crossbar.
Tyrone Mings let a gilt-edged chance go begging late on, ensuring United’s inability to double their lead was not punished, though they will need to be more clinical if they are to narrow the eight-goal gap between themselves and Liverpool.
What does it mean? Spot-kicks remain key for Solskjaer’s men
Liverpool’s stalemate at Newcastle United handed United the opportunity to eradicate their lead at the top, but a combination of wasteful finishing and some inspired saves by Martinez meant they were again reliant on a penalty to get the job done.
The 27 Premier League penalties for United since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first game in charge are seven more than any other team.
Martial an everyday goalscorer
Martial’s goal saw him become the fifth United player to score a Premier League goal on all seven days of the week, joining Ryan Giggs, Andrew Cole, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney in achieving that feat.
It also took him to 117 goal involvements in all competitions since his United debut in September 2015 (76 goals, 41 assists), more than any other player for the club in that time.
Douglas Luiz loses composure
Douglas Luiz covered 10.61 kilometres in the game, more than any other Villa player, but his and his team-mates’ efforts were undone by a needless foul from the Brazilian, from which Fernandes restored United’s led.
Key Opta Facts
– United are unbeaten in their past 16 Premier League matches against Villa (W12 D4).
– Villa have lost 13 of their past 15 away Premier League games against United at Old Trafford (W1 D1).
– In Premier League history, the only player to be directly involved in more goals in their first 30 appearances in the competition than Fernandes (33 – 19 goals, 14 assists) is Andrew Cole (37 – 28 goals, 9 assists).
– Martial ended a run of seven Premier League appearances at Old Trafford without a goal, netting his first home goal since scoring against Southampton in July.
– Only Tottenham‘s Harry Kane (10) has assisted more Premier League goals this season than Grealish (seven), while the last Villa player to assist more than seven Premier League goals in a season was Ashley Young in 2010-11 (10).
United face neighbours Manchester City in the EFL Cup semi-final on Wednesday before a clash with Watford in the FA Cup third round on Saturday. Villa host Liverpool in the same competition a day earlier.