Manchester United. . . . .1
No historic treble, then, and the doubts invading those worried United minds took a stronger hold last night when Ron Atkinson filled the Coca-Cola Cup with fizzy stuff of the more expensive variety before carrying it off to Villa Park.
One down, two to go. Thwarted by his managerial predecessor, Alex Ferguson was left to concentrate on the real thing: the classic 'double'.
The Villa hordes raucously told United that they were going to win FA, which we can safely assume was not a reference to the most famous cup of all, and they could be right. One win in six games suggests that there is now a real chance of a season which promised so much ending in tears, and the FA Cup date with Oldham Athletic in two weeks' time is looking more problematical by the day, with players dropping out quicker than you can say red card.
Andrei Kanchelskis, sent off in the last minute yesterday for handling a goalbound shot from Dalian Atkinson, is automatically suspended for the semi-final, along with Eric Cantona and Roy Keane.
Bad could soon become worse. The 15-point lead the champions once enjoyed in the League will disappear completely if Blackburn beat Wimbledon tomorrow, and United are at Ewood Park on Saturday for a match which could see their rampant rivals displace them at the top.
The latest, and most demoralising in a series of debilitating results found the most gifted team in the country outwitted in one of the best League Cup finals in memory.
Atkinson's managerial reputation is founded on many qualities, but tactical imagination has never been regarded as his forte. Until now. Here, his game plan proved a masterstroke. Well aware that United's wingers were potential matchwinners on Wembley's broad acres, he stationed Tony Daley and Dalian Atkinson in front of his full backs to provide an additional line of defence.
Something very similar had worked well when his Sheffield Wednesday team beat United in the final of the same competition, and this time the ploy met with such success that Ryan Giggs suffered the rare indignity of substitution.
Belt-and-braces defence, perhaps, but the strategy was not entirely negative. Atkinson, who helped Earl Barrett to subdue Giggs, still found time to get forward, and scored the psychologically significant opening goal.
United began brightly enough, Cantona picking out Giggs, whose header flew tantalisingly wide of the far post, and Mark Hughes going close after the young winger had eluded his twin markers for once.
Villa were under intense pressure, but responded to the challenge with intelligence and impressive resolve. Unable to make their usual progress on the flanks, United tried their luck through the middle and foundered on a midfield rock by the name of Kevin Richardson and a pair of all-consuming centre-halves in the foursquare shape of Paul McGrath and Shaun Teale.
Keane, supplied by Hughes, should have found a greater degree of accuracy with a close-range header. Instead, a good chance went to waste, and the extravagance was soon punished when, with 25 minutes gone, Villa took the lead with their first attack of any consequence.
Andy Townsend's pass found its way to Atkinson via Saunders' flick, and the striker steered the ball past Les Sealey's desperate advance with the outside of his right foot.
Paul Parker, from 25 yards, and Gary Pallister, much closer in, threatened to restore parity, but Teale dispossessed Kanchelskis with the sort of heroic last-ditch tackle that inspires or deflates, according to your persuasion, and the impression that it was not to be United's day strengthened midway through the second half when the disconsolate Giggs gave way to Lee Sharpe.
With 14 minutes left it was 2-0, and Atkinson (the larger one) was wearing a smile bigger than that ample girth. Daley's darting pace panicked Parker into conceding a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area, Richardson drove it in low and Saunders's predatory instincts brought him his 14th goal of the season with a volley which was all placement rather than power.
All over? Not quite. Hughes headed over from six yards before giving United a glimmer of hope when he turned smartly on Keane's shot and directed the ball into the far corner. Eight minutes left and they had to go for it, of course. On came Brian McClair, for Steve Bruce, and all-out attack would have had its reward but for the stunning one-handed reach with which Mark Bosnich broke Hughes' heart and his team's resistance.
That was that as far as United were concerned. The issue had been settled by that remarkable save, and the last-minute penalty was significant only for the banishment, and consequent suspension, of Kanchelskis.
Keith Cooper, who had an excellent match, had no option but to flourish the red card when the Ukrainian handled Atkinson's follow-up shot after Daley had shivered an upright.
Kanchelskis trudged off, Saunders dispatched the penalty straight and true, and Ferguson was left with much to do to halt the downward spiral.
Aston Villa (4-5-1): Bosnich; Barrett, McGrath, Teale, Staunton (Cox 79); Atkinson, Fenton, Richardson, Townsend, Daley; Saunders. Substitutes not used: Spink (gk), Houghton.
Manchester Utd (4-4-2) Sealey; Parker, Bruce (McClair 83), Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Giggs (Sharpe 68); Cantona, Hughes. Substitute not used: Walsh (gk).
Referee: K Cooper (Pontypridd).
Football, page 30