Not since Sir Alex Ferguson signed off with a Premier League title in 2013 have Manchester United been in this position in the Premier League on New Year’s Day.
Not under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho. Not for eight long years.
Victory over a spirited Aston Villa at Old Trafford sent United level at the top with bitter rivals Liverpool.
That is one reason Solskjaer maintains it is too early for title talk. But the United manager can only play down his chances for so long if this continues.
A fifth league win in 16 days over the Christmas period – United’s other fixture ended in a valuable draw at Leicester – has catapulted them up the table and onto Liverpool’s shoulder.
It came courtesy of Anthony Martial’s header before half-time and another Bruno Fernandes penalty. They Portugal star came up trumps for his team again with his 11th goal of the season.
Amazingly, he has now been directly involved in 33 goals in his 30 league appearances for United, scoring 19 and setting up another 14.
Solskjaer made four changes to the side that snatched a late win over Wolves on Tuesday but kept Paul Pogba in the line-up on the left of a midfield diamond.
Edinson Cavani was unavailable as he started a three-match ban after accepting an FA charge of misconduct over a discriminatory social media post.
‘When the charge came through, you expected it for him to get a ban,’ said Solskjaer beforehand. ‘One thing for sure is he is not a racist. No malice. His words were taken out of context, but we and him accept it and we want to move on.’
United came into the game on the back of a 10-game unbeaten run in domestic competitions that included eight wins, and a record of just one defeat in 43 Premier League meetings between these two clubs.
However, Villa had already beaten Liverpool, Leicester and Arsenal this season before Monday’s draw at Chelsea, with Tyrone Mings’ return from suspension the only change to that line-up.
United started with purpose and brought two comfortable early saves from Emiliano Martinez, first when Fernandes fed Martial who cut inside and left fly with a right-foot shot, then when Harry Maguire headed straight at the Villa keeper from Luke Shaw’s corner.
Pogba dummied Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s low cross, allowing Fred to send a 20-yard effort whistling over the bar, before the Frenchman side-footed past the post when Fernandes picked him out with a pass in the 25th minute.
Mings was rather fortunate to escape punishment for a forearm into Pogba’s face at a corner shortly afterwards that left him needing treatment and with blood pouring from his mouth.
Villa were certainly trying to give as good as they got and penned United in for periods in the first half. Jack Grealish fed Matthew Cash on the overlap and his cross to the far post found John McGinn whose first-time volley tested David de Gea at his near post.
Another searching cross from Cash brought an excellent interception from Eric Bailly, but United regained the upper hand before half-time.
Fernandes went close with a curling effort past the far post from Shaw’s cross before Martial made the breakthrough in the 40th minute.
It owed much to the combined skills of Pogba and Marcus Rashford to send Wan-Bissaka away down the right.
Villa seemed to have the situation in hand again, but Mings and Ezri Kansa were horribly flat-footed as Martial stole in between them to meet Wan-Bissaka’s cross and squeeze a header past Martinez.
If the goal was a major blow for Villa, they resumed after half-time determined to put it right.
Grealish was particularly influential, sending over a teasing cross for Ollie Watkins to force De Gea into a fingertip save and then setting up Anwar El Ghazi to fire just over.
When the equaliser arrived in the 58th minute it felt like it had been coming.
United were caught off-guard when McGuinn played a quick free kick to Grealish on the right and Douglas Luiz dummied his low cross. The ball ran to Bertrand Traore at the back post and he took a touch before burying his shot in the back of the net.
Having fought their way back into the game, Villa were level for less than three minutes when Luiz undid his good work with a clumsy challenge on Pogba.
There wasn’t a huge amount of contact but enough for VAR to uphold Michael Oliver’s decision and Fernandes converted from the spot – United’s 27th spot-kick in the league under Solskjaer, seven more than any other team.