The Doc's Diagnosis: Manchester United vs Aston Villa

Having just returned from Gloucester Royal Infirmary's Coronary Unit, I feel it my duty to at least attempt to compile some half-decent ramblings on yesterday's goings on at Old Trafford.

For old time's sake, let me start with the positives. And there are a lot of them.


I had mixed feelings when I saw the team sheets: first of all, defiantly and in the face of a lot of criticism (not least from both me and Damian in recent posts), O'Neill decided to stick with a 4-4-2. Let me admit that I thought that a dangerous mistake in the light of our implosion at Anfield. But at the same time I was strangely cheered by seeing Nicky Shorey at left back and Luke Young on the right. I was never quite sure what Shorey had done that was so diabolical as to get himself repeatedly overlooked, and I like to see players in positions they have made their own.

It was quite obvious that if Villa were going to get anything from the game, though, both Stan Petrov and Gareth Barry were going to have to play blinders.

Well, they both did - and we still came home with nothing. Why? Because this was a classic Old Trafford afternoon. United were out-of-shape, listless and outplayed by a sharper and more mobile team for long periods of the game. But they dug deep late on in their inimitable way and found the two pieces of magic to supply the theatrical finale Sky must have been praying for. No, they didn't deserve it - but I'll challenge every Villain out there to tell me they didn't just half expect it.

Of course, the tragic curtailment of Villa's hopes wasn't all engineered by United themselves. They were ably assisted by twelfth man Mike Dean, who seemed determined to punish Villa's fighting spirit; who called a couple of key offside decisions wrongly; who "missed" two vital fouls on Ashley Young (one at each end) and who somehow waved his wand and managed to conjure up an astonishing five minutes of added time.

In fact, not astonishing at all for a referee who awards Manchester United a penalty once on every two occasions he officiates at Old Trafford.

It would be petty and miserly of me to moan at James Milner for making the mistake which led to United's opener. Villa had started superbly, with Agbonlahor and Carew threatening a torrid afternoon for Neville and co. and with Barry imperious in midfield again. Yes, it was frustrating - but it was a momentary lapse by a player who gave everything to get back and help his team defend. And it was only a matter of time before Carew was going to get on the end of something.

And he duly did. That something being the sweetest, curling, floating cross from Gareth Barry who had carved himself some space to make the cross with sublime skill.

Villa came out for the second half and the pattern resumed, only this time United's ambition left more space for Villa to break. And this is my only complaint about Villa's performance: with United on the ropes and there for the taking, Villa broke half-heartedly, our young players perhaps fearing what they were leaving behind them. If Young, Milner and Gabby had used all the pace on the break with real menace, ferocity and purpose, then I have an inkling we could have gone 3-1 or even 4-1 up and, quite possibly, broken United's resolve.

We got one ahead - and that was enough to wake Ronaldo from his slumber, and to prompt the United bench to inject some attitude into the ranks.

And the rest - those two moments which drove nails through claret and blue hearts - is the stuff of all today's headlines, so you don't need me to dwell on it.

We got the same number of points as we did at Anfield. For all that, this was a performance which will lift the squad and The Holte End too. It was worlds apart from Anfield, and it might not even be too much to say that Villa are back.

Enjoy your trips to Stamford Bridge, Anfield and Old Trafford, Mr. Wenger. We're still here.

Villa: Friedel 8; Young 7; Davies 7; Cuellar 7; Shorey 7; Milner 8; Petrov 8; BARRY 9; Young 6; Carew 7; Agbonlahor 6.

Man of the Match: Gareth Barry. But for a certain Italian, all the headlines would have been about him.