Federico Macheda and Nemanja Vidic’s late goals were enough for Manchester United to escape Villa Park with a draw they scarcely deserved after Ashley Young from the penalty spot, and Marc Albrighton on the break, had given the home side a well deserved lead.
Villa, who have not beaten United at home in fifteen years, will feel they should have had the game won by the time Macheda’s rocket shot found the top corner, after hitting the woodwork twice within the space of two second half minutes.
It’s partly a sign of the faith Gerrard Houllier is placing in the graduates of the academy, and partly down to the ever increasing injury list at Villa Park, but the front six who lined up to face Manchester United today had an average age of under twenty-three, and featured twenty-one-year-old Jonathan Hogg making his league debut. Despite their lack of experience, they showed plenty of spirit against their more illustrious opponents.
Villa dominated possession in a first half that rarely got out of second gear. Bannan was again hugely impressive, pulling the strings from a deep midfield role. His perfectly weighted ball around Wes Brown for the advancing Stewart Downing on 14 minutes was flicked away at the last possible minute by Rio Ferdinand, before Downing was able to force the ball across goal.
Albrighton too was lively, and just a minute later he beat Patrice Evra down the touchline, but his ferocious cross eluded everyone in the box. At the other end Dimitar Berbatov wasted the clearest chance of the half, tamely prodding the ball wide from twelve yards after being played in by Javier Hernandez
After a week in which refereeing decisions and Manchester United were again under the microscope, Mike Dean’s performance will have done little to calm the storm. Rightfully booking Bannan for a trip on Hernandez as United looked to break, Dean then inexplicably failed to book Hernandez for blatantly kicking the ball away just five minutes later.
Villa came out with all guns blazing at the start of the second half as Albrighton twice went close in the first few minutes. But Dean was again the centre of attention on 52 minutes when Nani was only booked for raising an elbow to Warnock, who had robbed him off the ball only minutes earlier to set up Albrighton. Nani clearly seemed to size up his opponent before throwing his arm into the face of Warnock as they challenged for a high ball. The assistant referee flagged straight away, but Dean only deemed the incident worthy of a yellow card.
Perhaps spurred on by Dean’s apparent favouritism of United, Villa began to turn the screw on their opponents. James Collins’s fired a bullet header against the bar with Van der Sar merely a spectator just after the hour mark, before Agbonlahor burst into the box and crashed a strike against the post after a clever one-two with Ashley Young just two minutes later.
On 70 minutes Villa had the breakthrough their attacking play deserved. Agbonlahor beat Vidic for pace on the break and turned a tempting ball into the box for the onrushing Ashley Young, who was bundled to the floor by Brown before he was able to make contact with the pass. Young stepped up to hammer home the penalty, and was booked for his celebrations. Quite why Brown only received the same punishment only Mike Dean knows.
Alex Ferguson threw on Obertan and Macheda for the ineffectual Berbatov and Hernandez after the penalty, but it was Villa who struck next. Macheda gave the ball away as United poured forwards in search of an equaliser, and Ashley Young, seizing the chance to break, fed Downing whose first time cross was smashed home from six yards by Albrighton.
It was no more than the hosts deserved. United however, now staring defeat firmly in the face, began to fight their way back into the game. Albrighton reacted quickly to clear Ferdinand’s bundled shot off the line on 79 minutes, before Macheda drilled into the top corner from the edge of the area after receiving Fletcher’s clever back heel.
Unwilling to simply try and see out the game, Villa continued to attack, and the superb Downing could have made the points secure when he cut inside Brown and flashed a strike inches over Van der Sar’s goal. It was heartbreak for the home side just two minutes later however, as Nani’s fantastic back post cross was guided home by Vidic with a well controlled diving header. Dean’s decision not to book Vidic for an identical celebration to that of Ashley Young raised eyebrows even further, particularly as Vidic had already found his way into the referee’s notepad.
Neither side could find a late winner, but a point may well feel like a defeat for a Villa side who had controlled large parts of the game. With Fabio Capello in attendance and set to name his England squad to face France tonight, Downing, Ashley Young, Albrighton and Agbonlahor all showed enough to deserve a place in the national side. That will be little comfort for the Villa fans however, who will have to wait a while longer for a victory on home turf over the Premier League’s perennial late scorers.