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Sunday, 11 February 2024 20:53

McTominay scores late winner to give huge boost to Red Devils' Champions League hopes.

By Simon Stone.

Scott McTominay's 86th-minute header gave Manchester United a priceless 2-1 victory at Aston Villa as they fight for Champions League qualification.

United appeared to be clinging on for a point as Villa created a succession of chances after Douglas Luiz cancelled out Rasmus Hojlund's first-half strike.

But McTominay settled a thrilling contest when he got in front of Matty Cash and rose to meet Diogo Dalot's right-wing cross.

United manager Erik ten Hag punched the air in delight as his side moved to within five points of their hosts, who remain fifth, and six adrift of Tottenham.

It was the Red Devils' fourth successive victory in all competitions - their best run of the season.

The result was harsh on Villa, though. They were thwarted on numerous occasions by United keeper Andre Onana, and despite the urgings of the home support were unable to draw level a second time.

Five-star Hojlund

In the high-ability world of elite sport, confidence plays such a key part.

When Hojlund lined up for the reverse fixture between these sides on 26 December, he was yet to score a league goal and his overall contribution was coming under major scrutiny.

Wind the clock forward seven weeks and the 21-year-old is the second youngest player in Premier League history to have scored in five successive games, behind only Nicolas Anelka.

The Dane had already passed up one opportunity, created for him by Alejandro Garnacho, when he was given another by Harry Maguire.

The finish was not a tricky one, with Hojlund unmarked and only six yards out. But he needed a striker's instinct to be in position to take advantage of Ollie Watkins' failure to react to the possibility of Maguire heading Bruno Fernandes deep corner into the danger zone.

Hojlund now has 11 goals in all competitions and is on the kind of run Marcus Rashford was last season as he propelled United towards the top four.

After they dropped so many needless points over the first half of the campaign, it is going to take more than a single striker to steer them into next season's Champions League.

McTominay is certainly doing his bit. Two goals to turn what seemed like a defeat against Brentford on its head, two more - including the winner - againts Chelsea, and now this.

The Scotland midfielder had all the desire needed to dominate Cash in their aerial duel. Villa boss Unai Emery's look of despair as the ball flew past Emi Martinez and into the roof of the Villa net said everything about the importance of the goal.

Villa connection

With just over 20 minutes to go, as the visitors got themselves into a tangle trying to play out from the back, Watkins set off on a sprint as the ball rolled back to Onana. As the United keeper deliberated, Watkins closed in. Onana hurriedly tried to clear, Watkins blocked it and the ball rolled out for a goal-kick. The Holte End erupted.

In terms of the actual game, it was a footnote, but the action and response to it said everything about the desire of the Villa players and their connection with the fans. That has not always been a given in recent times but the supporters are understandably responding positively to the team Emery has assembled.

Such has been United's dominance in recent meetings between the two sides, Villa were attempting to record successive home league victories against them for the first time since 1977.

Had Cameroon reached the African Cup of Nations semi-finals, and thus denied the visitors of Onana, they might well have got it - at times, it felt like he was a one-man blockade.

John McGinn thought his vicious 20-yard effort was going in but Onana managed to tip it over the bar. Minutes later, the Villa skipper played Watkins in only for the goalkeeper to advance smartly to block at close range.

Leon Bailey thought he had left Jacob Ramsey with only Onana to beat inside the box but somehow the youngster could not collect the pass and the ball rolled through to the United keeper. Onana even denied Clement Lenglet with a magnificent reaction save in the moments before Luiz finally found the target with an instinctive close-range effort.

At that point it seemed if anyone was going to win, it would be Villa.

But McTominay provided the sickening conclusion from their perspective. They have slipped out of the top four, and three home defeats in a row show Villa Park is no longer the fortress it has been for most of this season.

The fans are still with their team, though. And that could take them a long way.