So 21 in ’21 is most definitely on.
Title number 21 for Manchester United in 2021 is suddenly not such a fanciful notion.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may not want to admit it publicly, to take the pressure off his players, but his side are now genuine contenders in this season’s title race.
A hard-fought victory here in a pulsating game here took United level on points with leaders and arch rivals Liverpool and stretched their unbeaten run in the Premier League to 10 games.
After a wretched start, which saw them earn a solitary point from their first three league games at home, United have taken 26 from 30 to soar to the summit of the table.
Suddenly, United’s trip to Anfield on January 17 has assumed huge significance, the first time in more than a decade that English football’s two biggest clubs are both vying for the title.
When he was quizzed about United’s title chances before Christmas, Solskjaer said he would be able to make a proper assessment once the busy fixture period was over.
That time is now, and although Solskjaer is refusing to acknowledge United’s title prospects to take the heat off his players, he knows deep down they are most definitely in the mix.
With Edinson Cavani starting a three-match ban after accepting a misconduct charge for an offensive Instagram post, Anthony Martial returned to lead United’s attack.
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And it was Martial who set the Reds on their way to victory with the opener, United displaying a physical and mental resilience thereafter which suggests they can last the distance in the title race.
United played with purpose and enterprise from the start, always looking to get in behind Villa’s defence, which they did on several occasions.
The opener came five minutes before the break, Paul Pogba winning the ball with a header and some deft skill, clipping it to Marcus Rashford, who sent Aaron Wan-Bissaka surging forward.
Wan-Bissaka picked out Martial, whose clever run across the six-yard box and brave header yielded the goal United deserved, after Tyrone Mings failed to clear the ball.
Villa emerged for the second-half full of intent, Ollie Watkins forcing a fine save from De Gea with a looping header back towards the goal.
United were strangely passive and it was no surprise when the visitors levelled in the 58th minute, Wan-Bissaka failing to track Jack Grealish, who crossed for Bertrand Traore to score at the far post.
The Reds paid the price for switching off, but restored their lead three minutes later, when Douglas Luiz was judged to have fouled Pogba to concede a penalty.
A VAR check concluded ref Michael Oliver had made the right call and Fernandes stepped up to convert the spot-kick for his 15th goal of the season.
Martial came close to making it 3-1 with 20 minutes left, but his angled shot was palmed away by Martinez, while at the other end De Gea got down low to block an effort from El Ghazi.
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But De Gea saved the best for last, diving at full stretch to keep out a goalbound Matty Cash effort in the 92nd minute.
United held out for the win to remain on course for an unlikely title tilt, in an unpredictable season where anything would appear possible.
The seismic clash with Liverpool in a fortnight’s time will tell us how well equipped they are to achieve that goal.