MANCHESTER UNITED 3 ASTON VILLA 2
Aston Villa almost turned back the clock by coming as close as they have done in 26 years to winning at Old Trafford in a stirring performance which proved a point even though it agonisingly failed to yield one.
Ultimately time was on Manchester United’s side as a late, late winner in a pulsating five-goal encounter returned Sir Alex Ferguson’s title hopefuls to the top of the table and left Villa at rock bottom.
Goals from John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor were sandwiched in between a Cristiano Ronaldo brace before United’s 17-year-old debutant Federico Macheda scored a 93rd minute decider.
Agbonlahor and strike partner Carew, reunited because of injury to Emile Heskey, clearly smelt blood with United shorn of defensive rocks Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
Bearing in mind how Villa’s previous match at Anfield panned out, the claret and blue contingent were dreading witnessing another five goals flying in, especially after their team’s habit of kicking themselves in the foot reared its ugly head once more.
In the time it took James Milner to touch into Brad Friedel’s grasp a ball that the veteran keeper already had covered, Villa left themselves with an uphill task seemingly steeper than Everest after an indirect free-kick was awarded for a backpass.
Milner, in his haste to make amends was booked for encroaching as Ryan Giggs and Ronaldo attempted to work their magic on the 10-yard opportunity, although he merely delayed the inevitable as the Portuguese rattled the Welshman’s lay off into the top corner above the head of Nicky Shorey on the line.
Before the concession Villa surprised a nervy United side with their pluckiness as Ashley Young, Nicky Shorey and Agbonlahor all whipped over threatening crosses, before Darren Fletcher’s knee stopped a Carew header creeping inside Edwin Van Der Sar’s right-hand post.
However, there was nobody to prevent Carew’s next effort doing precisely that, certainly not Gary Neville as the Norwegian powerhouse’s movement took him behind the Red Devils defender to make perfect contact with Gareth Barry’s measured left-foot ball from the right flank.
It was a goal which restored claret and blue belief, unsurprisingly knocked by just one point from the previous 15 on offer, especially when Ferguson’s changed his tactics, swapping Neville and John O’Shea in a desperate attempt to cope with Carew.
The switch barely worked because just before the hour mark Carew drifted over to the left and was allowed ample time and space to pick out Agbonlahor for a brave header inside the six-yard box which saw him poleaxed by Van der Sar for his troubles.
It was with an air of inevitability that, given sufficient time, Ferguson’s team, a red and white force of nature would eventually break Villa’s resistance, while the identity of the goalscorer, Ronaldo, was hardly surprising either.
Michael Carrick was a paragon of patience as he calmly worked the ball to Ronaldo, who squeezed an edge of area shot into the only area of Friedel’s goal, the bottom right corner, that the American was not guarding.
So pulsating was the match that even at that point a first Villa win at Old Trafford since 1983 was still not beyond the realms of possibility. This was a Villa team after all which had also tested Van der Sar before the interval with goalbound strikes from wingers Young and Milner.
However, United cranked up the pressure with Carlos Cuellar, who had taken the ball off Giggs’ foot just after the opening goal doing likewise to deny Evans a scoring opportunity.
The second intervention was particularly important, not least because a slip by the Spanish defender had moments earlier let in Danny Welbeck for a one-on-one which Friedel stood up strong to repel.
There was nothing the Villa goalkeeper could do about a strike from another United substitute which was worthy of winning any game, even if his team were not worthy winners against visitors who deserved at least a point.
O’Neill was apoplectic about a foul on Ashley Young in the build up to the 93rd minute sucker punch although the spin with which Macheda left Luke Young and his measured missile into the top right corner were worthy only of compliments, not complaints.
Villa’s boss was also taken aback by the five minutes of stoppage time awarded by referee Mike Riley, especially as there were only three substitutions.
Scorers: Ronaldo (14) 1-0, Carew (30) 1-1, Agbonlahor (58) 1-2, Ronaldo (80) 2-2, Macheda (90) 3-2.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O’Shea. Neville, Evans, Evra; Nani (Macheda, 61), Fletcher, Carrick, Ronaldo; Giggs, Tevez (Welbeck, 88). Substitutes: Foster, Park, Gibson, Martin, Eckersley.
ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young, Cuellar, Davies, Shorey; Agbonlahor, Milner (Reo-Coker, 76), Petrov; Barry, A Young; Carew. Substitutes: Delfouneso, Knight, Salifou, Guzan, Gardner, Albrighton.
Referee: Mike Riley (Yorkshire).
Bookings: United – Macheda (unsportsmanlike conduct); Villa - Milner (encroachment), A Young (dissent).