Aston Villa missed the opportunity to claim the top spot in the Premier League after playing to a draw at home against Sheffield United.
Cameron Archer, who was sold by Villa to Sheffield United in the summer, surprised the hosts by opening the scoring in the 88th minute from close range.
Substitute Nicolo Zaniolo salvaged a point for Villa with a header deep into stoppage time, but they couldn’t find the winning goal.
Villa needed a victory to top the standings for the first time since August 2011, having not led the table at this stage in a season for 25 years.
Despite dominating possession and chances, they remained behind Arsenal in the standings based on goal difference.
Leon Bailey had a goal disallowed by the VAR earlier in the second half.
Villa came close in the first half when Sheffield United goalkeeper Wes Foderingham saved low from Moussa Diaby before Ezri Konsa sent a far-post header over from a John McGinn corner.
They were also frustrated by VAR, which supported on-field official Anthony Taylor’s decision not to award an 11th-minute penalty when Ollie Watkins was brought down by Vinicius Souza.
VAR continued to deny Villa after the break, with Jacob Ramsey judged to have fouled Foderingham from a corner before Bailey swept home just before the hour mark.
They were dealt a blow in the 88th minute when Archer turned home Gustavo Hamer’s pull back from inside the six-yard box, before Zaniolo salvaged some small consolation by beating Foderingham to Douglas Luiz’s 97th-minute cross.
Villa’s Christmas Dreams Dashed
The buildup to this game was dominated by discussions of how a win would ensure Villa finish a day at the top of the Premier League table at least 18 games into a season for the first time since leading at Christmas in 1998.
A club-record run of 15 successive home league wins, including victories over Manchester City and Arsenal in their previous two matches at Villa Park, had ensured Unai Emery’s side firmly remained in the title picture – but that run has now come to an end.
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder treated this game like a visit to a title contender, with his side adopting a 5-4-1 formation whenever Villa had possession.
This was for most of the game – Villa had 78% possession across more than 100 minutes of play – and while it wasn’t pretty, it was certainly effective in frustrating the hosts and neutralizing their creative players.z z z z z z z z z z
It also frustrated the supporters, who were treated to a light show and fireworks before kick-off as anticipation grew for a move to the top of English football.
But as the nerves grew and the visitors became bolder, what should have been Villa’s big night turned into a damp squib.
Credit must be given to Sheffield United, who now have four points from their first three games since Wilder’s return to the club, boosting their hopes of Premier League survival – although they remain five points from safety after Zaniolo’s equalizer.