What a difference a matter of days can make. Last week, after Manchester United had won at Queens Park Rangers and Manchester City had slipped up at Arsenal, United found themselves with an eight point gap in their favour at the top of the League. Cue proclamations by journalists about the “champions-elect” and the early deciphering of where it all went wrong for City. Fast forward a few days, with Mancini’s men taking victory at West Brom and United falling flat at Wigan, and we find the title race is indeed still on with a five point lead at the top of the table, despite Mancini’s attempts at a negative outlook. By the time Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had been due to play on Sunday, the gap had been reduced to two points, with many excited at the prospect of a tight run in come the end of the season. This time, United would host Aston Villa at Old Trafford, looking to restore their advantage at the top against a side that have not produced too many challenges in years gone by.
There were changes made to the side that faltered at the DW Stadium midweek, as United continued with the favourite defensive triplet of David De Gea, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans. Out right, Rafael Da Silva replaced Phil Jones, with Patrice Evra on the left. In midfield, Paul Scholes returned to the starting line up, alongside Michael Carrick, with Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia occupying the left and right wings respectively. Up front, Javier Hernandez made way for Danny Welbeck partnering Wayne Rooney.
The game began with United looking to take on a quick tempo, immediately looking to put play through Valencia on the right, who got off to a lively start. It was clear from the start that the side had been sent out with one objective in mind. 7 minutes in and a moment of controversy, as Ashley Young went down as he took on Clark dragging him out and drawing the foul. Wayne Rooney sent Given the wrong way to give United a 1-0 lead.
Villa responded, competing well in midfield but failing to get the ball forward effectively due to their set up. The home side refused to back down, continuing to attack with plenty of threat. With play focused out wide, Ferguson’s men were finding plenty of space to attack but could not convert their chances with Welbeck, Rooney and others spurning chances or being denied by Shay Given. Scholes’ volley from Young’s corner nearly produced a spectacular goal, but his effort fired just wide.
With only minutes remaining and the score looking to go in 1-0 at half time, Carrick made a run at the visitor’s defence, playing in Young, who was able to play the ball in through a back line that failed to respond and allowed Welbeck to finish at the far post, ending a small goal drought for him and doubling his sides lead going in at the break.
The second half kicked off with United still looking to control proceedings. The away side also started to see more chances, making for a fairly open game. An hour gone, and the first change is made, with Young making way for Nani. Minutes later, and huge appeals ring out as play from a corner results in the ball appearing to strike Baker’s arm, but protestations were swiftly waved away. Moments after and Heskey, on as a substitute, forces a good save from De Gea, who tipped over the bar from his looping header.
With just under 20 minutes to go, United put the game beyond doubt, as Valencia pulled the ball back from Rooney’s pass, playing in the England striker who slotted a deflected effort low, leaving Given with little chance. 3-0 and cruising. Rooney was immediately replaced by Berbatov. Soon after, Scholes made way for Cleverley.
From then on, United looked ever more comfortable, as a deflated Villa struggled to trouble a home side looking to close the gap in goal difference created by two dominant City wins in the space of a few days. Deep into injury time and United took advantage, as Evans picked out Nani who finished coolly, providing United with a comfortable 4-0 victory and restoring the five point gap at the top of the table.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Two consecutive, controversial Ashley Young penalties….
One moment that will be highlighted in any post-match analysis will be the awarding of a penalty after Young appeared to be tripped up early on. In truth this is understandable. The situation appeared to be that of Young looking for the penalty and being able to win it, rather than the defender committing it. As Young drew in the defender it ultimately left his foot trailing producing contact under which, the England winger went down. We can see from the replays, and indeed the moment itself, that the contact should not have produced the reaction it got, with Young going over rather dramatically. Some have cried foul, calling it a dive and that it should not have been given, much like last week against Queens Park Rangers. However, in this situation, although rather theatrical in his antics, the decision of the referee to award the penalty was correct.
Although seen as soft, the fact of the matter is the defender did not get the ball and there was contact with Young. Yes, he went down easily, and although he was clearly looking for the foul to be committed, he also had every right to go down in the circumstances. The referee had little choice in the matter as the argument to award the spot kick was rather obvious. The only worry for Young now may be that the rather unnecessary amateur dramatics may hinder his reputation, influencing decisions in future from referees and players who will see him as a diver. But in this case, unlike last week, the decision was correct, despite the ease with which Young went down.
2) Carrick relishes playing with Scholes
Although it was a disappointing performance by all involved midweek against Wigan, one notable absentee that fans had been missing was Paul Scholes. With Carrick and Giggs taking the centre of the park, United struggled to get a true foothold in the game, with Wigan by far the better team and United only getting one shot on target for the entire game. To be fair, since Scholes’ return Carrick has seen a resurgence in form, combining well with post-retirement Scholes to make a formidable pairing. Against Villa, we saw an improvement over the performance against Wigan in a far more controlling affair, albeit against a side who appeared far less competitive than the Lactics.
3) Berbatov’s Return
Making his first appearance since January, fans were glad to see Dimitar Berbatov make a return from the wilderness, brought on as a substitute for Wayne Rooney. Since confirming that he was likely to be on his way out this summer, many believed that we had likely seen the last of Berbatov before his certain exit come the transfer window. However, having maintained a dignified silence regarding his long absence from the side, I for one was hoping to see the Bulgarian striker don the jersey at least a few more times before his departure. The main reason for this is the added option he gives to the line up compared to Hernandez and Welbeck. The way he holds up play and his superb control allow for a different style of play that may help in situations where the current system is not as effective as hoped. Unfortunately, he could not get the goal that fans were willing him to get on his return, but it was still good to see him play nonetheless.
4) Regular clean sheets helping the cause
It was interesting to read David De Gea’s comments prior to the game regarding his boost in confidence and the strong performances he has produced in recent weeks (link provided below). He cited the familiar set up of the defensive line as a reason behind his own success in the United goal, contributing to a string of solid performances and an ever growing list of clean sheets. I found myself agreeing with this, the fact is that as a goalkeeper, having regular centre backs in front of him week in, week out helps in settling a ‘keeper new to the league and allows him to learn their style of play and ways to adapt to them. Coupled with the strong form of Jonny Evans and the reassured level of play from Rio Ferdinand, and United have found themselves with a far more consistent back line than the constantly chopping and changing one earlier on.
5) 5 point lead, goal difference changes
After the midweek upset away from home, it was imperative that United went out at Old Trafford and delivered a strong performance to maintain control and their advantage at the top of the league. With City winning 4-0 and 6-1 in confidence-filled showings, it was vital that United gained all 3 points from this encounter to keep the situation firmly in their grasp. Regardless of the deficit in goal difference, Sir Alex Ferguson knows that United simply have to keep winning to ensure they remain in control of their fate. Although this may be easier said than done with potentially tough games coming up and a huge clash coming up against City, the situation remains in United’s favour. If the 5 point gap is kept or improved upon by the time United meet City, then Ferguson and his side will be breathing a lot easier. One thing is for sure, the title race is definitely not over, despite what Roberto Mancini may claim. Squeaky bum time indeed.