Manchester United faced off against Aston Villa today needing a victory to keep pace with league leaders Manchester City, as well as chasers Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea. The Reds were hoping that their Dane in goal, Anders Linegaard, paired with Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrive Evra and Chris Smalling on defense, would bolster a side that has looked less than solid at times this season. Phil Jones kept his place in the lineup, albeit playing midfield this time around, and was accompanied by Ashley Young, Michael Carrick and Nani. Wayne Rooney and Chicharito played up top to round out the 4-4-2 played by the Champs to open the game. The contest began ominously enough, with Chicharito twisting his ankle and being carted off on a stretcher inside of 8 minutes. Hernandez's injury was not only worrisome in the context of yesterday's game, but even more so given the injury earlier in the week to Dimitar Berbatov, putting additional strain on the United strike corp that is already producing at a paltry clip. The Mexican was replaced by Antonio Valencia after a 4 minute stoppage, and with main man Wayne Rooney's continued drought in front of goal, United looked as if they would depend more than ever on someone unexpected coming up with the goods to take all three points from the contest. Although United had considerably more of the early possession, in keeping with recent form they created very few real chances. Their lack of a cutting edge changed at the 20 minute mark, though, with Nani teeing up Jones' inaugural League strike, a cross turned into the net by a perfect toe poke, to give the visitors an early 1-nil lead. Nani tried to double the lead off his head inside of five minutes; although his long range effort was on target, Shay Given denied it rather effortlessly.
United's easy dominance of midfield -- a rarity these days -- continued throughout the first half, leading to a highly lopsided possession ratio. Villa looked punchless and clueless, like a toothless tiger now kept as a home pet.
Shortly before half time it was Villa being bitten by the injury bug, with Shay Given the one being carried off the pitch. The Villa 'keeper was replaced by American Brad Guzan after he pulled a hamstring lunging for a sideline clearance, pulling up lame while attempting to return to his customary position in front of net. The teams played 8 minutes of stoppage time before heading into the locker room, the super-sized extra period resulting from the lengthy injury delays on both sides. Although Villa's moribund performance resulted in them being booed off the pitch, it would be a stretch to suggest that Sir Alex was happy with a performance that really should have produced more. The doldrums continued well into the second half, with both sides playing as if they were afraid of entertaining the fans. Although the effect was nothing new for Villa this season, the feeling was also becoming worryingly familiar for United fans around the world, as the Reds continued to look disjointed at best, and uninterested at worst.
While the action of on the pitch was less than scintillating, the personnel manning the stretcher were kept more than busy: Jermaine Jenas was the second player to go down with no one near him, the twisting ankle eerily familiar to the injury that Hernandez suffered earlier in the game. To keep things even, Rio Ferdinand then limped off with another problem, only to be replaced by the ageless wonder, Ryan Giggs. Emil Heskey came close for Villa as he steered a 70th minute header round the side of the post, rousing Lindegaard from the deck chair on which he had been watching the match. The Dane then put away his boat drink and stayed awake long enough to deny James Collins' bullet header and protect the Red's slim advantage.
Villa's late "revival" did little to raise United's ire -- the Reds seemingly more than content with the current scoreline -- and their best effort at a counter came from a softball of a shot off the foot of ex-Villan Young. Sir Alex appeared less than impressed as he introduced Danny Welbeck in place of the former Midlands man. The three points hung tantalizingly in the balance throughout the last 10 minutes, as Villa swung free kick after free kick into the box in search of a late equalizer. There were a couple late signs of life from the visitors: Wayne Rooney blazed over the bar after a fine 1-2 with Michael Carrick, just missing an 88th minute goal which would have given him great confidence coming into the midweek Champions League match. And while Danny Welbeck managed to deposit the ball in the net just before the final whistle blew, he was correctly adjudged to be offside -- by thismuch -- in doing so.
When the ref's whistle blew, the scoreboard read United 1 - Villa 0. Not quite the impressive markers laid down by City, Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea earlier in the day, but a victory nonetheless. Three points are three points, whether you win by one goal or four. United took the tough patch to victory, but they gained what they needed and kept the pressure on.