Manchester United exploited a poor weekend's work from their top-four rivals with a narrow but commanding 2-0 victory over Nottingham Forest at the City Ground, thanks to Antony's first Premier League goal since October and Diogo Dalot's maiden strike in the competition.
Match Report: Antony, Dalot score in win | Premier League table
The Brazilian winger pounced to slide in shortly after the half-hour, converting after Keylor Navas had superbly parried a powerful close-range shot from Anthony Martial, and then turned provider as makeshift left-back Dalot powered in a late second. Although Taiwo Awoniyi posed United problems and the hosts were never out of the contest, the game was largely dictated by the vice-like grip on midfield held by Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen, and United would have been home and hosed earlier but for a sensational display from home goalkeeper Navas.
Jadon Sancho's first-minute effort was alertly blocked by Felipe, the excellent Fernandes headed just wide from Eriksen's brilliant cross and then found himself repeatedly denied by a blinding second-half performance from Navas, but ultimately the game was decided by Antony's goal and assist. United's clean sheet -- a third in four games achieved despite losing both Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane to injury against Sevilla on Thursday evening -- was largely comfortable but also owed a debt to Awoniyi's errant finishing, especially when he blazed over in the first half after being inadvertently teed up by Dalot.
David de Gea's goal was most threatened by Morgan Gibbs-White's testing set-piece delivery but, as a procession of chances came and went at the other end, the Spaniard's patched-up defence was able to keep the hosts at bay to pick up a vital three points that take Erik ten Hag's side into third place, three clear of Newcastle and six ahead of Tottenham, with a game in hand over the latter.
As against Sevilla, United started very brightly and might have moved ahead inside the first minute, but for a goal-saving block from Felipe to deny Sancho. Though forced into action ahead of schedule, the resumption of Fernandes and Eriksen's on-field partnership was a joy to behold, bossing the tempo of the game, the balance of possession and frequently spawning chances for the visitors.
Antony's game has been under scrutiny since his summer arrival, but a recent upsurge in form has largely gone unheralded without goals or assists, and the provision of both in a crucial game should provide the youngster with a timely confidence boost. Perhaps even more important was the clean sheet and performance of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof ahead of De Gea, with that triumvirate likely to be cornerstones of the season's nitty-gritty weeks ahead.
United's recent injury jinx struck even before the first whistle at the City Ground, with Marcel Sabitzer tweaking his groin at the end of the warmup and making way for Christian Eriksen. De Gea also appeared in danger of succumbing to the trend after seemingly injuring his foot early on, but the Spaniard recovered to remain in goal.
Manager rating out of 10
8 -- Erik ten Hag was nimble with his selection, making the right call in restoring Eriksen to the starting XI when the in-form Sabitzer pulled up minutes before kickoff. The rejig entailed pushing Fernandes further forward and the Portuguese was a sensation in a freer attacking role, particularly when he worked in tandem with Eriksen.
Ten Hag's decision to bring his full-backs into central areas whenever possible allowed United to gain a stranglehold on midfield for the most part, but also put Dalot in the unpredictable position of sewing up the points with the Reds' second goal. Having had his substitutions come under scrutiny after the concession of a two-goal lead against Sevilla on Thursday evening, this was a timely riposte from the Dutchman.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best, players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK David De Gea, 7 -- Limping early on and found himself under an onslaught at set pieces during the first half, but seldom had to get heavily involved. Did a decent job of organising the injury-ravaged defence in front of him.
DF Aaron Wan-Bissaka, 7 -- Started the afternoon with an important block from Awonyi's goal-bound effort, and was heavily involved throughout the first half, both as United sought to make inroads down the Forest left and when meandering into central areas to provide a midfield overload. Continues to grow in importance and looks like a player transformed under Ten Hag.
DF Harry Maguire, 7 -- Picked up a booking inside three minutes for hauling down Awoniyi off the ball, but quickly got back on track with a crucial sliding challenge on Brennan Johnson. Survived an early VAR check for handball, plus a verbal onslaught from the home support, to play his part in a crucial clean sheet.
DF Victor Lindelof, 8 -- For all the doom and gloom around United's central defensive positions of late, the Swede took the game as a chance to reiterate his talent. On the front foot from the first whistle, looked comfortable in possession and made one magnificent headed interception to thwart Awoniyi. A huge boost for Ten Hag.
DF Diogo Dalot, 8 -- Switched to left-back after Tyrell Malacia joined Luke Shaw on the sidelines. Occupied a narrow role at times to help United boss midfield. Sent one speculative effort comfortably off-target from an inviting position and rode his luck when Awoniyi blazed over after his heavy touch, but managed to find a way past Navas with a clinical finish late on.
MF Casemiro, 7 -- Quietly felt his way into the game as he made a first Premier League outing since his dismissal against Southampton in mid-March. Largely sat deep and allowed those ahead of him to dictate United's attacking ebb and flow, but should have had an assist when his excellent cross was headed wide by Martial 20 minutes from time.
MF Christian Eriksen, 9 -- Hurried into his first start since late January when Sabitzer pulled up injured during the warmup, but was completely unfazed and had the ball on a string throughout his time on the pitch. Pin-sharp passing and super-intelligent movement. Had a close-range effort saved by Navas just after the hour and was hustled off after Dalot's goal to ensure his freshness for Thursday's Europa League trip to Seville.
FW Antony, 8 -- A decisive contribution from the youngster. Frequently manoeuvred into his favoured shooting position just outside the box, only to curl over the bar or past the post each time, but was crucially alive and alert to turn in United's opener after Martial's shot had been superbly saved. Embossed that with a sublime assist for Dalot late on to wrap up one of his most influential Premier League performances to date.
FW Bruno Fernandes, 9 -- Almost omnipresent. Sent in some brilliant crosses from both sides during the early exchanges and tested Navas with a stinging half-volley. Played a major role in Antony's opener with a fine through-ball to Martial, and all that his performance lacked was a goal -- though not for a lack of trying. Headed just wide at the end of the first period before entering into an absorbing duel with Navas, whose string of stops included one fabulous tip onto the goal frame from Fernandes' stinging effort.
FW Anthony Martial, 7 -- Continued to catch the eye in his latest comeback from injury. Invested in the pressing required of his role, best illustrated with his excellent part in Antony's opener. Dropped deep to good effect and should have had a goal to his name, but could only direct his back-post header wide from Casemiro's fine cross. Departed for Wout Weghorst immediately thereafter.
FW Jadon Sancho, 7 -- As against Sevilla last time out, started very brightly and almost broke the deadlock inside the first minute. Still working back towards his peak form but showed real determination to keep demanding possession, looking for the right passes and making the right runs. A step in the right direction.
FW Wout Weghorst, N/A -- Returned to the scene of his first United goal for a 20-minute cameo. Made an important decoy run for Dalot's goal but was also fortunate to escape with a booking for needlessly tangling with Moussa Niakhate.
MF Fred, N/A -- Given the final 13 minutes as Eriksen was hastily wrapped in cotton wool after United's second goal. Helped the visitors see out the game without any late scares.