Philippe Coutinho inspires Aston Villa fightback against Manchester United
Aston Villa’s comeback here pulsated and was decorated by Philippe Coutinho’s first Premier League goal – the 82nd-minute equaliser – since Boxing Day 2017. Manchester United should be furious at how they allowed the strike five minutes after Jacob Ramsey’s finish gave Steven Gerrard’s team a lifeline, Diogo Dalot, Victor Lindelöf and Raphaël Varane, all caught ball-watching.
Before this a delighted travelling United support had regaled Bruno Fernandes, their adored hero whose two finishes seemed to point to an invaluable victory in what was the captain’s best display of the campaign.
Yet this underlines how off-colour Fernandes has been, one of too many United players. The visitors did, of course, not lose but this was a concerning surrender from Ralf Rangnick’s still-too-shaky side.
United enjoyed the best start. Five minutes had been played when Alex Telles and Fernandes executed a slick free-kick on the left in which the former touched the ball to the latter who, striding forward, blazed at Emiliano Martínez. The goalkeeper fumbled – badly – and in rolled the opener.
This followed two Fernandes corners so a team who lost their last league outing – to Wolves – and have struggled to establish patterns of play, will have hoped he goal might settle them. But Fred, in the lackadaisical manner that lets him down, miscontrolled near United’s area and Danny Ings nearly pounced.
Cristiano Ronaldo was missing for a second consecutive outing due to a “hip flexor” problem, Rangnick said, while Marcus Rashford’s “dead leg” ruled him, so the German turned to Anthony Elanga, rather than Jadon Sancho in what was a 4-2-3-1, not the usual 4-2-2-2. The 19-year-old, operating on the left, lacked conviction with a header but better was the thrust of Mason Greenwood, one barracking run sweeping United forward, though his vision was not matched when passing and demanding a return. The No 11 is a predator, as Martínez discovered when a Telles cross came to him and the No 1 scrambled to save.
Gerrard named one new signing – Lucas Digne – in the starting lineup, and another – Coutinho – as a substitute. His was a frustrating watch from the technical area, given how Villa conceded, so there was relief when, after Digne felled Dalot and Telles this time fired the free-kick at Martínez, the keeper kept the ball out.
Gerrard’s side were suffering due to a far better display from United than in Monday’s encounter when Villa were seriously unlucky to suffer FA Cup elimination. It meant Villa were toothless until 31 minutes passed and Ollie Watkins, finally, tested David de Gea. United’s upturn might be traced to a Fernandes far more influential than in recent matches. A theory runs that he can be stifled by Ronaldo though they occupy different spaces and roles. The way he dropped deep to hit a Dalot run along the right was Fernandes in whirring, effervescent mode, the quality here contrasted to how, moments later, Fred belted a pass into touch.
Before this Digne’s corner was headed goal-ward by Emiliano Buendía and De Gea’s reflexes protected United’s lead. Then the Spaniard’s knees saved Digne’s point-blank attempt.
Fernandes crashed into Morgan Sanson as welcome to the second half, then the bright Elanga had Martínez beating a shot out. United lacked fluidity, maybe, but were a half a yard faster and closer to the opponent than in recent matches. Villa’s Ramsey had De Gea saving low to his right, this was followed up by Digne’s break, the ball swung over and rolled back to Matthew Cash, but the full-back failed to unload a shot.
There was a flow to the contest that made invigorating entertainment in an under-the-lights atmosphere that crackled. Villa supporters were close to rapture when Buendía let fly but De Gea gathered and Digne hit side-netting.
United were hemmed in, relief coming when they broke, Greenwood claimed a corner and Fernandes’s delivery eventually saw Elanga shooting wide. Rangnick clutched his head when Greenwood beat Martínez but the ball rolled marginally outside the right post. The 63-year-old was happier when Fernandes did beat the keeper, Fred’s assist a simple touch that allowed the team talisman to smash home.
Yet now Coutinho, on after 68 minutes, created Ramsey’s strike, who beat De Gea after the Brazilian’s pass pin-balled off Fred.
Next, Villa Park was lit up by the little magician, whose equaliser benefitted from a comedy of United defensive errors. Donny van de Beek might have grabbed glory with a late chance but failed.