Football: Giggs' strike ends Villa's resistance to put United four points clear at top

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The Independent Online
Manchester United 1

Aston Villa 0

The virtuoso performance will have to wait for another night. On this occasion Manchester United were content with the merely functional to overcome perennially obstinate opposition and open a four-point lead in the pursuit of the championship.

Ryan Giggs' goal, early in the second half, was sufficient to end the serial deadlock against an Aston Villa side who had seemingly perfected the obscure art of rendering the champions impotent.

United, gushing goals and self-belief in recent weeks, confronted familiar resistance from Brian Little's players. Three previous encounters had failed to produce a goal and the Villa manager would have settled for the same again at Old Trafford last night.

Villa confronted United with a five-man defence in which Ugo Ehiogu was as majestic as he was defiant, and had three midfield players ever prepared to reinforce that back line.

There was, however, a subtle and potentially destructive difference to Villa this time. They demonstrated also an instinct for the counter, essential armoury deployed with telling effect in Europe this season, and it is a reflection on that threat that two of United's outstanding players were their central defenders, Ronny Johnsen and Gary Pallister.

Johnsen, preferred to Henning Berg in that role, had the mobility as well as the stature to contend with the dual menace spasmodic though it was, of Stan Collymore and Savo Milosevic.

United's familiar fluency repeatedly ran aground on Villa's organised defence and yet their confidence in their own ability and, you sense, their destiny, prohibits panic. They persisted with one-touch, give and go football and ultimately carved a way through. They should, indeed, have extended their advantage and Teddy Sheringham can expect to be relieved of penalty-taking duties. The England striker missed his third penalty for United, pushing it wide.

Alex Ferguson, United's manager, said: "I think Teddy has put himself in the dole queue as far as penalty-taking is concerned. Paul Scholes is available now after suspension, so it's possible he will take them now."

Ferguson solved the problem of his front-line surplus by playing all three recognised strikers, Andy Cole, Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Each, in turn, squandered opportunities and Giggs somehow contrived to miss from barely a couple of yards.

In such circumstances, the defence comes into its own and United again stood firm, even if Peter Schmeichel almost gifted Villa an equaliser. The United captain tossed Villa an improbable way back only for Gareth Southgate to reject it.

Ferguson said: "Villa usually make it hard for us here and we had to be patient. We could have scored a few but then they could have scored two or three, I think they've definitely learned from playing in Europe.

"I thought Giggs was outstanding. His penetration always troubled them. He's hard to handle. His run for the goal left them for dead."

Giggs was not alone in squandering early opportunities. Ian Taylor, venturing forward from Villa's midfield, had the doubtful privilege of confronting Schmeichel one-on-one and the Dane produced his trademark block.

Milosevic pushed another chance wide just before half-time. Between those incidents, United had pummelled Villa and Cole turned a shot from Giggs on to a post. The goal, when it came, was worthy of winning the match. Sheringham headed on, Cole flicked on, and Giggs, darting beyond reach, drilled his shot beneath Michael Oakes.

Alan Wright twice broke from cover only to shoot just off target and Pallister and Johnsen had to maintain their concentration. But the activity was concentrated in and around Villa's area, Solskjaer heading tamely and Sheringham's deflected shot hitting the bar.

Little said: "We might have sneaked something from the match, but overall we were second best. They were the better side and deserved to win. We had one or two good chances but this was probably the one game we didn't want to have this week and you sensed it before the game, among the players, in the dressing-room."

Manchester United (4-3-3): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Pallister, P Neville; Beckham, Butt, Giggs; Sheringham, Cole, Solskjaer (McClair, 84). Substitutes not used: May, Van Der Gouw (gk), Berg, Curtis.

Aston Villa (5-3-2): Oakes; Charles, Ehiogu, Staunton, Southgate, Wright; Draper, Taylor, Grayson (Hendrie, 68); Collymore, Milosevic (Joachim, 68). Substitutes not used: Nelson, Scimeca, Ghont.

Referee: P Durkin (Dorset).