Rasmus Hojlund capped Manchester United’s thrilling fightback from two goals down as the Denmark striker netted for the first time in the Premier League to seal a dramatic 3-2 win against Aston Villa on Tuesday.
Erik ten Hag’s side were in danger of another damaging defeat when goals from John McGinn and Leander Dendoncker put Villa in control by half-time at Old Trafford.
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United were booed off at the interval but they staged a much-needed revival, sparked by Alejandro Garnacho scoring their first goal in seven hours and twenty minutes.
Garnacho struck again to equalise before Hojlund finally ended his goal drought with eight minutes left.
It was Hojlund’s maiden league goal for United in his 15th appearance and his sixth in all competitions since his August move from Atalanta.
Hojlund’s cathartic strike ended United’s four-match winless run in all competitions and lifted them to sixth in the Premier League.
“At half-time I said to the team, ‘keep believing’. The atmosphere changed a lot from the first half to the second,” Ten Hag said.
“If we play our best we can beat anyone. Even when you are two-nil down, it doesn’t matter. Keep going, show character. Today they showed we have the personality to do it.”
Two games without a win have dented Villa’s unexpected title challenge.
Unai Emery’s men remain third, three points behind leaders Liverpool after their first defeat in 11 matches in all competitions.
“Two weeks ago I was asked if we were contenders and I said no. Why? Because we are playing several top teams that are contenders more than us,” Emery said.
“I told the players that the first part of the season was fantastic but I want more.”
United’s dismal 2-0 loss at West Ham had left them with 13 defeats in all competitions this term, their most before Christmas since 1930.
That wretched run had increased the pressure on Ten Hag, who was perceived to be fighting to convince British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe to keep faith with him.
Ratcliffe agreed to buy a 25 percent stake in United for £1.03 billion ($1.3 billion) on Christmas Eve.
INEOS director of sport Dave Brailsford was in the Old Trafford directors box in the first sign of Ratcliffe’s investment.
Brailsford’s mantra was “marginal gains” during his time in charge of the British Cycling team, making this hard-fought success a vital step in Ten Hag’s bid to avoid the sack.
– Hojlund redemption –
United’s flaws were on full display when they fell behind in typically sloppy fashion after 21 minutes.
When Bruno Fernandes gave away a needless free-kick, McGinn’s inswinging delivery from the right flank should have been cleared.
But United keeper Andre Onana and his defenders were flat-footed as the ball arrowed into the far corner untouched.
United were guilty of more woeful defending in the 26th minute as Clement Lenglet was left unmarked to head McGinn’s corner into the six-yard box, where Dendoncker back-heeled a deft finish past Onana for his first Villa goal.
Marcus Rashford was making his first United start for six games since early December after scoring only twice this term.
Rashford squandered a good chance to reduce the deficit when he shot too close to Emiliano Martinez, who palmed away another blast from the forward before half-time.
United desperately needed a goal early in the second half and Garnacho delivered in the 59th minute as he tapped in Rashford’s low cross.
Onana made a crucial save from Leon Bailey’s volley to keep United afloat and Ten Hag’s men made of the most of the reprieve as they snatched an equaliser in the 71st minute.
Fernandes’s cross was deflected into Garnacho’s path and the winger’s strike from 10 yards hit Diego Carlos as it flashed past Martinez.
United defender Jonny Evans cleared McGinn’s shot off the line, setting the stage for Hojlund’s moment of redemption.
A United corner deflected off McGinn towards Hojlund, who swivelled to caress a sweet volley in off the post, sparking wild celebrations from the Dane and his team-mates as Ten Hag breathed a sigh of relief.