Manchester United made it 18 trips unbeaten at Villa Park against a lifeless Aston Villa, showcasing steel rarely seen from the Red Devils.
A fixture’s difficulty shouldn’t depend on whether it’s home or away, but it does. At home, you know where the kettle is, how the toaster works (as long as it’s not a Dualit) and the sanctuary of the bedroom is available at your disposal. You can’t do that at a home away from home, but Villa Park is just that for Manchester United. It’s like spending the day at your doting grandparents.
Having not been to Villa Park since 1995’s opening day disaster, I was wary that the annual happy stay could end unhappily thanks to the omen effect, with me as Damien. Not solely due to the destination factor and that it was the last time Villa beat United, but recent Old Trafford form.
In 2007/08 I attended the three games United failed to win at home in the campaign and in 2009 there was the torture of being stood in K Stand next to gleeful Scousers during their 4-1 win. One year on it was League One Leeds celebrating and mocking Munich and later that year I witnessed the only game United failed to win in 2010/11 at home (against West Brom). Then in October, City prolonged the Grim Reaper effect. Devastating for a sporadic Old Trafford-goer.
But Aston Villa rarely threatened to uphold my doomlordery in a breathtaking first half of forlorn football. United were superior in possession but, bereft of Javier Hernández after his early withdrawal, lacked significant potency. Not knowing who the substitutes were due to entering the ground with 15 minutes to spare, Antonio Valencia’s arrival surely signified that United had no strikers on the bench. Yet in the second half Danny Welbeck was spotted warming up. More s**t on a stick?
The tickets had largely fallen into the right hands.
Not in the first half, certainly. United hadn’t played so well away from home since September’s 5-0 annihilation of Bolton, and had Villa perplexed with Nani operating as a false nine. He and a much-improved Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young dovetailed gracefully, which perhaps explains Villa’s lax marking for the game’s only goal.
It was only watching it on Match of the Day that its brilliance could be truly appreciated. From the Doug Ellis Stand, a deflection couldn’t be ruled out when peering through the plethora of bodies seeking better vantage points, but it was an exemplary finish from Mr Jones, midfield general. Sir Alex Ferguson offered a nice ‘yoo-hoo’ which some genius has tweaked to make a great gif.
Great goonage was had on what was a good away day for the Red Army – unfortunately an all-too-rare occurrence recently. Others I spoke to didn’t share the same enjoyment (the second tier attendants were forced to sit down by jobsworth stewards) but the tickets had largely fallen into the right hands.
‘Nemanja Vidic’ had written a letter requesting that supporters refrain from standing in the aisles and giving stewards a tough time. More crusading to sanitise an already overly-sanitised football culture that many are growing weary of, it didn’t work and rather than hassle vocal supporters stewards in our sector were inactive. There were however plenty of arrests elsewhere.
If not a great lecturer then Vidic is indisputably a great defender. He was man of the match in another United away performance, rendering Darren Bent such a nonentity that on one occasion I assumed that he had been substituted. He is too immobile and dependent on teammates to be potent yet when starved of supply, doesn’t endeavour to galvanise his side.
With Heskey, the intended purpose is usually the opposite.
When Shay Given went off to be replaced by a bald American called Brad, there was high anxiety until someone confirmed it was Guzan, not Friedel. The latter would discard his Zimmer frame to thwart United.
Barry Bannan was typically graceful in his passing and positivity, yet Villa have too few of his ilk. Marc Albrighton is and had given Patrice Evra a torrid time in the corresponding fixture last year, but was ineffectual again as his career relapse continued.
Like Albrighton’s joy against Evra, Valencia had Stephen Warnock on toast in the 2010 League Cup final. Although better than his miserable display against Crystal Palace on Wednesday night, he lacked promptness and variety against the Scouser even when 3,000 United supporters were cajoling him. If that isn’t a stimulant…
Much humour was had when Emile Heskey arrived in what was an attacking move by Alex McLeish. With Heskey however, the intended purpose is usually the opposite and he confirmed this with a wretched header when almost on the goal line and a shot that went out for a throw-in. ‘Heskey for England’ hollered the lively United supporters.
Villa’s contingent in the stands were lethargic though. If they made a sound on ESPN then it would have been by virtue of sound effects, because they were as dire as their own team were. They’re also an easy target for opposition supporters; fickle and harbouring a Little Englander mentality, they were stumped more than once by their acerbic visitors.
A new chant was incepted for Chris Smalling about him being big and black and playing at the back. An innovative ploy in distracting John Terry when Stamford Bridge beckons.
Normally ‘Oh Villa Park is never full, unless you play Man United’ gets an airing. Yet even against United it wasn’t full. There were hundreds of spare seats in the top tier of the Holte End and Trinity Road Stand to highlight the growing discontent under the maligned McLeish.
United were too content in the second half despite the arrival of the imperious Ryan Giggs adding welcomed silk. Welbeck invigorated the attack too but the decision-making was too predictable or erroneous, which augmented appreciation for Vidic’s colossus performance.
Refreshingly, a new chant was incepted for an unsung member in Chris Smalling about him being big and black and playing at the back. An innovative ploy in distracting John Terry when Stamford Bridge beckons, it also beats serenading Wayne Rooney, which too many revel in doing. I’m not alone in refusing to bellow his name since he courted City over a year ago.
Their 5-1 victory over Norwich, complete with a shrug of the shoulder, makes their goal difference +35 compared to their neighbours’ +18 – insurmountable even with the league yet to reach the halfway stage. Akin to last season, United must stay in touch, grind out results and then switch through the gears from January onwards. But a year ago Chelsea were wilting and no other team offered a tangible threat, whereas now the Citizens are exactly that.
We chanted ‘Nineteen times Man United, playing football taught by Matt Busby’ at the game’s denouement, but actually that wasn’t the case with 19, and it won’t be if number 20 arrives in May.
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