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
United proving they mean business
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have displayed their ability to grind out points at Old Trafford in recent weeks, as evidenced in 1-0 home wins over both West Bromwich Albion and Wolves.
But they have also shown a willingness to go toe-to-toe with teams who are happy to open up the game and, while this was not quite the shootout of the 6-2 win over Leeds, it was just as easy on the eye.
A number of fluid first-half moves produced chances before Martial’s opener as the France forward saw a curler tipped over by Martinez, while Fernandes and Wan-Bissaka were narrowly off target with similar efforts.
Martial stole between Mings and Ezri Konsa to nod the Red Devils ahead from Wan-Bissaka’s inviting cross for only his second league goal of the season on his return to Solskjaer’s starting line-up.
While Luiz was unfortunate to be penalised for what might have been an accidental clip on Pogba, there was enough contact for the penalty to be given and Fernandes continued his excellent record from the spot.
United were nine points behind Liverpool after a 1-0 defeat by Arsenal at Old Trafford on 1 November but have made up that gap in just two months to set an intriguing title race into motion.
A minute’s silence before the game paid tribute to former boss Tommy Docherty, who famously prevented Liverpool claiming the treble by leading United to an FA Cup win over the Reds in 1977.
And while talk of foiling a second successive Liverpool title might be premature, moving alongside them at the Premier League’s summit will give Solskjaer’s side even more confidence as they eye up a trip to Anfield on 17 January.
Villa impressive even in defeat
While Villa were ultimately outgunned by their hosts, their brave display was further evidence of the progress Smith’s side have made this season.
They held their own in the first half, causing United a number of problems down the flanks, with playmaker Jack Grealish prompting and probing to show why the hosts have long considered a move for the Villa captain.
But they were even more impressive in the early stages of the second period, Grealish crossing for the Watkins header that was saved by De Gea before collecting a quick free-kick and finding Traore to tuck home the equaliser.
Luiz’s foul on Pogba came with Villa very much in the ascendancy and while they then had to ride a storm the visitors still came close to pinching a point as Mings beat fellow England centre-half Harry Maguire to a free-kick only to nod wide.
With Ross Barkley’s return from a hamstring injury imminent, this performance should keep Villa optimistic even if defeat halted a five-game unbeaten run and saw them slip a place to sixth, behind Chelsea on goal difference.
And while their rotten record at Old Trafford continues – just one win in 34 visits since 1983, which came courtesy of a Gabriel Agbonlahor header in 2009 – they have still only conceded five times in eight away games this campaign.
‘We have improved a lot in a year’ – what they said
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told BBC Sport:“You are always delighted with three points. The performance was good and we created chances.
“It was maybe a little too open and we wasted chances. We tried to play the Hollywood pass instead of securing the first one and using the space that was there.
“We are happy with what we are doing. We have shown we have improved a lot in a year. We lost to Arsenal away last New Year’s Day. We have improved immensely.”
Aston Villa boss Dean Smith told BBC Sport: “I wasn’t happy with the first half. We were miles off the levels where we have been. It felt like a testimonial pace then they deservedly had the lead at half-time. I told the players we needed to be upping our levels.
“We competed a lot better [in the second half], showed more quality and created chances. I’d take the second-half performance all day long. A dubious penalty has lost us the game.
“When you look at our performances and results, it shows we are very competitive in this league now, which is what we wanted it to be.”
United’s hold over Villa goes on – the stats
- Manchester United are unbeaten in their past 16 Premier League matches against Aston Villa (W12 D4).
- Aston Villa have lost 13 of their past 15 away Premier League games against Manchester United at Old Trafford (W1 D1).
- In Premier League history, the only player to be directly involved in more goals in their first 30 appearances in the competition than Bruno Fernandes (33 – 19 goals, 14 assists) is Andrew Cole (37 – 28 goals, nine assists).
- Anthony Martial has now scored on all seven days of the week in the Premier League for Manchester United, becoming the fifth player to do so, after Ryan Giggs, Andrew Cole, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney.
- Only Tottenham’s Harry Kane (10) has assisted more Premier League goals this season than Jack Grealish (7), while the last Aston Villa player to assist more than seven Premier League goals in a season was Ashley Young in 2010-11 (10).
- Since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first Premier League match in charge of Manchester United in December 2018, the Red Devils have taken (27) and scored (21) the most Premier League penalties.
Manchester United host local rivals Manchester City in the Carabao Cup semi-finals on Wednesday (19:45 GMT) and welcome Watford in the FA Cup on Saturday 9 January (20:00 GMT). Their next Premier League game is away at Burnley on Tuesday 12 January (20:15 GMT).
Aston Villa host Liverpool in the FA Cup next Friday (19:45 GMT) before returning to Premier League action at home to Tottenham on Wednesday 13 January (20:15 GMT).