ASTON VILLA 0 MANCHESTER UNITED 0
On the 45th anniversary of JFK’s assassination Villa Park had a conspiracy theory of its own.
Only, Aston Villa were less concerned over who shot a president and more interested in who blew a gaping hole in their hopes of finally ending their Manchester United curse.
Martin O’Neill, a criminology enthusiast who has studiously followed numerous high-profile murder cases, prefers to deal with cold hard facts rather than indulge in fanciful myths.
However, the Villa manager felt there was enough evidence on a grassy knoll in Birmingham on Saturday evening to convict both United defender Nemanja Vidic and referee Chris Foy of wrong-doing.
The match, albeit an exciting encounter that belied the blank scoreline, was boiled down into one talking point at the final whistle.
It was an incident that left O’Neill feeling as bitter as the winter weather as his aspiring team bemoaned a perceived gross miscarriage of justice.
The controversy came about when Vidic was powerless to prevent Gabriel Agbonlahor accelerating away from him on to Gareth Barry’s probing pass in the 57th minute.
United’s Serbian defender took the law, or more specifically a fistful of Agbonlahor’s shirt, into his own hands as he desperately tugged back the new England striker.
The touchline tangle continued as Agbonlahor advanced into the penalty area at which point the Villa player tumbled and his United adversary finally got a piece of the ball.
It was a foul. At the very least Villa’s set-piece specialist Ashley Young should have been given the opportunity to whip over one of his trademark free-kicks from the flank.
O’Neill was of the opinion that the offence occurred inside the box and therefore believed his penalty taker Barry should have been awarded a 12-yard pot-shot.
Either way it was clear to the majority of the 42,585 crowd, with the exception of Foy, the other officials and Ferguson, of course, that Vidic had resorted to illegal tactics. It was O’Neill’s assertion that penalty or free-kick, such was Agbonlahor’s position in relation to the goal and Vidic’s status as last man that the United centre-half should have been sent off.
Foy gave nothing, waving away the protests and setting in motion a furious reaction from the Villa camp which tests their support of the Football Association’s Respect the Referee campaign to the limit.
O’Neill accused the decision of being “too big” for Foy, and the Ulsterman’s angry outburst could land him in trouble with the FA.
It was a shame that such a contentious moment should detract from a compelling encounter as Villa closed in on a breakthrough victory against their nemesis of the past 13 years.
Not since the opening day victory of the 1995-96 season have the claret and blues had the pleasure of a Premier League success over the dominant Red Devils.
Despite Ferguson’s belief that United deserved to win and had the better
chances, Villa restricted their visitors to fewer opportunities than most sides could ever dream of.
Granted, Wayne Rooney’s sight of goal midway through the second-half, slashed high and wide from close range, was the clearest opening of the game for either team.
Other than that, however, there was little to worry Brad Friedel, besides a routine tip around from Cristiano Ronaldo’s shot early on, as the goalkeeper equalled David James’ record of 166 consecutive Premier League appearances.
Villa hurried and harried United out of their stride – a series of thunderous tackles on Ronaldo seeing the sulky winger substituted for his own safety and sanity – and pushed and probed for an opening of their own.
Young, who tracked back to produce a vital tackle on Park Ji-Sung in the first-half, came closest for O’Neill’s men when his angled shot from Agbonlahor’s pass was clutched by Edwin van der Sar.
In the dying moments Villa’s rejuvenated winger James Milner capped a fine individual display with a winding run down the left which took him to the byline, from where he delivered a teasing cross. With both Agbonlahor and substitute John Carew lurking with intent, United captain Rio Ferdinand stuck out a foot to make a timely interception to ensure the game remained goal-less.
After defeats against Newcastle and Middlesbrough, the four points impressively gleaned from a victory at Arsenal and draw with United were enough to propel Villa into the Premier League’s top four.
Whether or not they can stay there depends entirely on who or what conspires against them.
ASTON VILLA (4-5-1): Friedel; Reo-Coker, Davies, Laursen, L Young; Milner, Petrov, Sidwell (Carew, 81), Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor. Substitutes: Guzan, Harewood, Knight, Salifou, Shorey, Gardner.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo (Anderson, 82), Park, Carrick, Giggs; Rooney, Tevez (Nani, 71). Substitutes: Kuszczak, Welbeck, Evans, Gibson, Rafael Da Silva.
Referee: Chris Foy (Merseyside).
Booking: Villa - Davies (foul).