CHAMPIONS LEAGUE football is edging ever closer to making a return to Old Trafford.
A club that contested three finals in just four seasons between 2008 and 2011 has been a bit of a stranger to club football’s elite competition over the last decade.
Man United returned to winning ways against Aston Villa
Bruno Fernandes netted in the first half
The game ended Villa’s ten-game unbeaten run
Even when the Red Devils have qualified the quarter-finals is the deepest they have gone in the competition.
But things could be different for the three-time winners under Ten Hag next season if this campaign is anything to go by.
Two domestic finals and now a place in the top four close to being confirmed after this victory over inform Aston Villa shows real progress in just one season with the Dutchman in charge.
Bruno Fernandes’ 39th-minute goal ensured victory over a Villa side who came here with an outside chance of getting into the top four themselves after an incredible run under Unai Emery.
The players came out to stadium which had the acrid smell of flare smoke in the air from protesters in the Munich Tunnel as opposed to The Glazers.
The takeover to rid the club of the hated owners has still not gone through.
On the pitch United began the game happy to keep firing long balls over the top of a Villa back four that was playing high up the pitch.
It was working too as they constantly turned the visitors back line round.
Of course the United frontmen were having to time their runs perfectly to beat the offside flag.
That flag in their attacking half in the first period was being carried by Constantine Hatzidakis.
Nobody was going to be arguing with that imposing official who was on duty for the first time in the Premier League since the ‘elbow’ incident with Liverpool’s Andy Robertson.
There were chances early on with Rashford looking back to his sharp best again after a recent groin injury.
Put through by Tyrell Malacia he had a shot deflected wide of the near post by Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.
Casemiro launched a ball forward for Fernandes which he hit across goal on the volley.
It was neither a cross nor shot and went wide.
There were cries for a penalty from the visitors when in the 19th minute Diogo Dalot tangled with Ollie Watkins at the far post and Alexandre Moreno’s follow-up was blocked by David De Gea.
Ollie Watkins was denied a penalty after a tangle with Diogo Dalot
Fernandes netted the opener shortly after from a tight angle
The VAR decided there was no pen.
United came close when Casemiro hit a shot that cannoned off the bar.
Then the breakthrough came which Martinez literally had a hand in.
When Rashford broke away his cross shot lacked power but the Argentine World Cup winner rather tamely palmed it to one side.
Fernandes was following up and his shot deflected off Moreno and looped back over Martinez.
The United stand-in captain raced straight towards the Villa fans in the corner and starred up at them.
They had been giving him stick from early on after he had gone down with the visiting fans believing he was feigning injury to try and get a free kick.
This was his response. The Portuguese ace’s 100th career league goal, six of which have come against Villa.
The 100th goal of his career
But the visitors were still very much in this game as the second period opened up.
United had witnessed at first hand the immediate influence of Unai Emery having lost 3-1 at Villa Park in his first game in charge.
That ended a nine game unbeaten run for Ten Hag’s team and gave Villa their first win at home over United since 1999.
It began a run of 13 wins from his 20 games in charge turning them from a side threatened with relegation to one now knocking on the door of European football.
They arrived at Old Trafford unbeaten since February 18 and having won eight and drawn two of their last ten.
So it was always going to be a tough task for a United side who surrendered a 2-0 lead at Tottenham on Thursday to draw 2-2.
But it was one they were handling well as they kept their advantage and went searching for a second goal.
Rashford dribbled his way into the box before being met by Martinez as he shaped to shoot.
Victor Lindelof pulled off an amazing clearance to protect the lead
At the other end it was Victor Lindelof once again on top form as he had been at Wembley the previous weekend in the FA Cup semi-final win against Brighton.
It was his flick header that denied an Ashley Young cross reaching in-form goalscorer Ollie Watkins.
He was there again to slide in and deflect Jacob Ramsey’s shot over the bar.
Then he headed a goalbound shot from Douglas Luiz off the line although an offside in the build-up would have ruled a goal out anyway.
Still, he didn’t know that.
United continued to keep Villa out to the final whistle.
A big win.
The result has boosted Erik ten Hag’s Champions League ambitions