Manchester United moved level on points with Premier League leaders Liverpool as a Bruno Fernandes penalty saw off stubborn Aston Villa.
An impressive run of seven wins in nine top-flight matches saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side end New Year’s Day in second spot – their highest position at the turn of the year since Alex Ferguson retired as champion in 2012-13.
The United great was in the stands on Friday as the current crop join rivals Liverpool on 33 points
Fernandes drilled his 11th league goal this season – and his fifth from the spot – into the bottom corner to punish Douglas Luiz’s clip on Paul Pogba and hand United an eighth win in 10 games.
Bertrand Traore’s calm finish underneath David de Gea had deservedly drawn Villa level, cancelling out Anthony Martial’s stooping first-half header for the hosts.
But Fernandes’ penalty extended United’s hold over Villa – they have now won 32 and lost just one of the past 44 league meetings between the sides – and leaves Liverpool top only by virtue of goal difference.
The spot-kick award angered Aston Villa boss Dean Smith who claimed Pogba “tripped himself” and that the video assistant referee should have asked on-pitch official Michael Oliver to review his decision.
“I don’t see why Michael couldn’t have looked at it. That’s what VAR is for isn’t it?” Smith told BBC Sport.
“I thought it was a penalty at the time, but I looked at it after the game and saw he tripped himself. I don’t think it’s a penalty. I think there’s enough doubt there to send the referee over to the screen.”
Smith’s side were perhaps unfortunate not to have left Old Trafford with at least a point from a thoroughly entertaining game but they also needed several fine saves from Emiliano Martinez to keep them in it.
After Fernandes’ spot-kick put United back in front, Martinez superbly tipped a stinging 25-yarder from the Portuguese on to the crossbar as well as denying Martial a second.
Martinez’s counterpart David de Gea was just as busy, with a late save from Matty Cash’s long-range strike preserving the points, not long after Tyrone Mings had headed wide a glorious chance to level.