As recently as the middle of the month, Trevor Francis was hailing United as the best team in Europe. They had been an awesome 15 points clear at the top of the League, were playing on a different plane to the rest, and were as hot as favourites to retain their title as the peerless Eric Cantona was to become Footballer of the Year.
Suddenly, it has all gone tear- shaped. The lead, now down to six points, will disappear completely by Tuesday if Blackburn Rovers beat Swindon and Wimbledon, and the notion of honouring reckless Eric is about as popular as inviting the Germans to march through London.
The buccaneering charge towards a clean sweep of the domestic honours has become bogged down in a quagmire of United's own making. They have had players sent off in each of their last three matches, and most of the points they have harvested of late have tended to be of the disciplinary variety.
Cantona has been the worst culprit. The spontaneity which makes him an artist among artisans also manifests itself in ghastly form, through shocking acts of red-mist spite. Sly back-heels at helpless opponents on the ground and the sort of stamping more readily associated with rugby have seen the oohs turn to boos, and the correspondents who elect the Footballer of the Year are looking in increasing numbers to the more prosaic, but pristine virtues of United's dreadnought captain, Steve Bruce.
For the Gallic spitfire, a few sharp words from Alex Ferguson would seem to be overdue. Uncharacteristically, the United manager has been in laissez faire mode, biting his tongue, no doubt, in the belief that a full-blown rollicking might see his best player scuttle home to France in a temperamental huff. However thorny, though, the nettle needs to be grasped. The canker is spreading, with Peter Schmeichel and Roy Keane both about to miss important matches through suspension and Paul Ince just one more booking away from a ban.
At a time when nerves are becoming increasingly taut, Ferguson needs all the experience he can muster, and can ill afford any more indiscretions, physical or verbal, from a team whose habitual harassment of officials has seen them christened Moan United.
The play seems to have deteriorated in rough correlation with the behaviour, and they come to Wembley with just one win in their last five games.
Ferguson plans two changes - one enforced, the other a real eyebrow-raiser. Les Sealey, veteran of the 1990 FA Cup final, and the Cup- Winners' Cup triumph the following year, plays against one of his old clubs in place of Schmeichel, who is serving the suspension he incurred for that mad-cap excursion in the Cup-tie against Charlton Athletic.
The other alteration finds Andrei Kanchelskis preferred to Lee Sharpe, who celebrated his first appearance of 1994, after hernia surgery, by scoring both United's goals at Highbury in midweek.
Ferguson says the Ukrainian flyer will definitely play, barring 11th-hour problems from the hamstring strain which kept him out of the back-to- back draws at Swindon and Arsenal.
The intention, evidently, is to subject Villa's old bones to trial by pace. Experience has taught Ron Atkinson that there is nothing but severance pay to be gained from buying young and getting the sack before promise comes to fruition, and his modus operandi is to build for today in case tomorrow never comes.
The Villa team is the perfect example, parading five thirtysomethings, with a sixth, Dean Saunders, due to swell their numbers in June. The midfield, in particular, is more Dad's than Ron's army, featuring Ray Houghton (32), Kevin Richardson (31) and Andy Townsend (30).
If the present group were going to win the championship it had to be last year, when they threatened to do so before tiring badly during the run-in. Left with what-might-have- beens instead of medals, they find themselves growing old together - a team destined for the knacker's yard at the end of the season.
Evidence of creeping infirmity has come in the last three games, which they have lost to Ipswich (0- 1), Leeds (0-2) and Oldham (1-2). They are seventh in the table, 24 points behind United, who have already beaten them at home (3-1) and away (2-1) in the League, and logic points to only one outcome.
Wembley, though, should bring out the best in Villa's old campaigners, who are good enough to have one famous last hurrah left in them. Paul McGrath will love it against his old club, Tony Daley is quick enough to worry any defence on those rare occasions when brain and feet are on the same wavelength and Dalian Atkinson has a flare for scoring truly memorable goals.
The treble chance? Stick to Littlewoods. Villa to win, 2-1.
Aston Villa (probable): Bosnich; Barrett, McGrath, Teale, Staunton, Houghton, Richardson, Townsend, Daley, Saunders, Atkinson.
Manchester United (probable): Sealey; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin, Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Giggs, Cantona, Hughes.
----------------------------------------------------------------- THE FINALISTS' ROUTE TO WEMBLEY ----------------------------------------------------------------- MANCHESTER UNITED: 2nd rd (1st leg): Stoke 2 (Stein 33, 74) United 1 (Dublin 72). 2nd leg: United 2 (Sharpe 46, McClair 88) Stoke 0. Agg: 3-2. 3rd rd: United 5 (Bruce 7, 86; McClair 14, Sharpe 53, Hughes 62) Leicester 1 (Hill 64). 4th rd: Everton 0 United 2 (Hughes 13, Giggs 46). 5th rd: United 2 (Giggs 29, Cantona 60) Portsmouth 2 (Walsh 32, 71). Replay: Portsmouth 0 United 1 (McClair 27). Semi-final (1st leg): United 1 (Giggs 19) Sheff Wed 0. (2nd leg): Sheff Wed 1 (Hirst 33) Utd 4 (McClair 4, Kanchelskis 10, Hughes 38, 82). ASTON VILLA: 2nd rd (1st leg): Birmingham 0 Villa 1 (Richardson 82). (2nd leg): Villa 1 (Saunders 82) Birmingham 0. Agg: 2-0. 3rd rd: Sunderland 1 (Gray 46) Villa 4 (Atkinson 27, 89; Richardson 33, Houghton 75). 4th rd: Arsenal 0 Villa 1 (Atkinson 4). 5th rd: Tottenham 1 (Caskey 84) Villa 2 (Houghton 57, Barrett 69). Semi-final (1st leg): Tranmere 3 (Nolan 5, Hughes 23, Aldridge 78) Villa 1 (Atkinson 90). (2nd leg): Villa 3 (Saunders 19, Teale 23, Atkinson 88) Tranmere 1 (Aldridge 29 pen) aet; agg 4-4. Villa won 5-4 on pens. -----------------------------------------------------------------Reuse content