After convincing wins for the other teams in the title race prior to kick-off, the pressure was on the champions going into this away clash. But Villa Park is traditionally a happy hunting ground for United and Sir Alex’s team collected three points thanks to Phil Jones’ first-ever goal at senior level.
The visitors were rarely troubled after the 20th-minute strike and were good value for victory at a ground where the Reds are unbeaten in the league since the start of the 1995/96 season. The manager will be pleased to secure another success after three matches without a win in the fixture that sees him overtake Sir Matt Busby’s league record of 972 games in charge.
Ashley Young played against his old club for the first time with Jones partnering Michael Carrick in midfield and Chris Smalling rewarded for a fine display in midweek with the right-back slot. Anders Lindegaard was preferred to David De Gea in goal.
After a sluggish opening, there was a lengthy stoppage when Javier Hernandez went down in some pain, after turning on his ankle, and was taken off on a stretcher with suspected ligament damage. On came Antonio Valencia, with Nani switched to a central role, and the champions took control with Smalling having a shot on the turn blocked after Nemanja Vidic got his head to a Young corner.
With 20 minutes on the clock, Jones beat Shay Given with United’s first shot on target. Patrice Evra found space in midfield and fed Nani on the left and his accurate cross allowed Jones to cushion in a volley, and enjoy his moment of celebration by exchanging a wave with Sir Alex and the coaching staff on the bench.
Soon afterwards, an error by Richard Dunne gifted Wayne Rooney possession and the ball was relayed to Nani via Valencia, only for Given to push away the Portugal international’s header. United assumed total command and Valencia blasted a terrific effort just over the bar after picking up a loose ball in midfield ahead of his team-mate Rooney.
The stop-start nature of the first half continued when Given was taken off with a hamstring injury and replaced by Brad Guzan, who had only appeared in the Barclays Premier League once before. United were unable to test the American before the interval, despite eight minutes of injury time being played, but it was Villa who were jeered off when the half-time whistle sounded.
Although dominant, United failed to really press home the advantage after the break. Rooney tricked his way past Barry Bannan but his shot deflected wide without a corner being given and Nani’s effort was easily fielded by Guzan. Villa twice gifted the ball to blue shirts, only to recover with saving tackles from Stephen Warnock and James Collins on Rooney and Jones respectively.
But there was no real fluidity to the match as Jermaine Jenas became the latest injury victim, while Sir Alex opted to bring Rio Ferdinand off and shuffle things around with Jones dropping into defence. Inevitably, Villa finally carved out some openings themselves but substitute Emile Heskey was unable to convert a Dunne flick-on at the far post and James Collins’ header was tipped over by Lindegaard after more approach work by the Irish defender.
Young mustered a low shot wide and a tame shot straight at Guzan as the Reds realised the need to get the job done. Indeed, Sir Alex threw on fit-again striker Danny Welbeck, in place of winger Young, in recognition of the need to provide a greater threat at the other end. Rooney almost wrapped it up when linking well with Carrick but flashed a volley over the bar with a few minutes remaining.
Welbeck had the ball in the net in the closing stages, but was rightly flagged offside after Rooney delayed his pass and Heskey’s misplaced shot, as stoppage time approached, proved to be Villa’s final effort. Another clean sheet for United and an important victory to close the gap on leaders City back to five points. Since the derby defeat, it’s been all about defending from the front and the team once again did that perfectly.
Glory Glory ManUnited!