Defensive slip-ups in a torrid first half gave Villa mission impossible at Old Trafford
Coming on the back of a match against Fulham in which their opponents didn’t register a single shot on target but still managed to walk away with a 1-1 draw, Aston Villa were the only thing standing between Manchester United claiming their 20th league title. It was never all that likely to be, was it…
Results at the weekend had somewhat conspired against Villa’s relegation fight with just Wigan losing, albeit that being the most important result in my eyes. Sunderland had managed to scrape past Everton and Stoke finished off Queen’s Park Rangers survival hopes which meant there were three points separating Villa from both the drop zone and their next rival up the table. Some have suggested that this means that Sunderland and Stoke are safe already; how limited their vision must be. In the five games previous to the tie at Old Trafford, Villa had grabbed ten points and dragged those two right back into the fight from what looked like safety - the same is more than possible in the remaining four fixtures.
It’s always difficult when you visit Old Trafford, none more so than as a Villa fan. One win there in 30 years doesn’t bode well and add to that it being a potential title winning game, you’d want to not give the hosts any encouragement to open the floodgates.
So, solid first ten minutes, no sloppy goals conceded. Attacking line-up that needs the players to work hard and the visitors can definitely pinch something from this game, delaying their celebrations. Except that it lasted all of 90 seconds before Robin van Persie slammed into the roof of the net from a yard out, destroying any optimism and self-belief that had been present before the game.
Not long after, van Persie had grabbed a second and the goal was truly sensational in all aspects, but what soon became evident was that Wayne Rooney was playing very deep. Unmarked, he was spraying 60-yard passes all over the place and causing no end of chaos in Villa’s defence; his pass found Valencia who crossed in for the opener, and it was his lovely defence splitting pass that set up van Persie for the sumptuous volley. You’ll be hard pushed to find many better goals than that.
OK, not impossible to get anything out of the game but just very difficult, it could still happen… and with an impressive ten minutes for Villa, the optimism returned. Belgian hit-man Christian Benteke had the chance to reduce the deficit but managed to fire over from 12-yards-out and not long after, United’s own hit-man completed the fastest hat-trick in a fair few seasons. Sloppy defending had cost the midlands side again and it was looking like it could be a disastrous final score, especially with Villa gradually bettering their awful goal difference over the last few matches.
At half-time it was 3-0, not really much hope at all for the second half then was there? Paul Lambert decided to change the formation to pack the midfield out a bit more and substituted Charles N’Zogbia for Karim El Ahmadi; Villa now playing with a formation that many had suggested should be started with before the game but that I didn’t think would work. You’d be forgiven for thinking that United would come out all guns blazing and would really put on a show for their fans as the game was all but over but it never materialised and the visitors had by far the better of the second half.
Andreas Weimann’s flick-header from a corner was cleared off the line by van Persie, whose attacking contribution was clearly not enough to satisfy himself. Benteke then stung the palms of David De Gea with a low 20-yard drive. El Ahmadi had one of his best appearances in a Villa shirt this season and was unlucky not to score himself with De Gea again to the rescue, getting his fingertips to a dipping effort from the Moroccan. The Villa players will hopefully take a lot of heart from their second half performance against the champions as they were clearly more creative, comfortable on the ball and dangerous than their opponents.
How much of that was down to Manchester United taking their foot off the pedal due to being 3-0 up will never be known and is to be honest, irrelevant. Lambert will need to look at the positives of that match though and despite a rather lacklustre defensive opening 35 minutes, the rest of the game was genuinely pleasurable viewing, as mad as it may sound.
It’s no excuse as I don’t doubt that it would have made much of an impact on the end result on a night like tonight, but all three of the home side’s goals were offside and Patrice Evra was lucky not to receive a second caution with 35 minutes of the game remaining. “On such tight margins, games are won and lost” is how the saying goes.
On to the six-pointers for Villa then, starting with a resurgent Sunderland. There’s no better time to improve that home record…