Football: Sharpe bursts the Villa bubble: Vibrant contest sees United quell sustained challenge to head Premiership

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Aston Villa. . . . . .1

Manchester United. . .2

TWO teams who were neck and neck for the title for most of the old season set the new one alight at Villa Park last night in a match which may not be bettered these next nine months.

Ron Atkinson had forecast an excellent advertisement for the domestic game, and the players were as good as his word. After England's recent misadventures, here was handsome reassurance that football at the top of the Premiership is vibrantly healthy.

Atkinson's Villa were runners-up last season, a dispiriting 10 points behind United at the death, but a summer's rest has brought them back in good heart and they gave as good as they got throughout. After waiting 26 years, though, United are not about to give up their title, and they showed the stuff of which champions are made in counter-punching their way to a win which sees them displace Liverpool at the top of the table.

Lee Sharpe contributed just one goal to the championship campaign, but the two he scored here were dispatched with a composure which made a nonsense of his modest record. Given his first start of the season courtesy of Bryan Robson's suspension, he made the most of a timely opportunity. England's squad for the World Cup tie versus Poland is selected this weekend, and Taylor is in no position to ignore forwards in form.

Sharpe's success overshadowed a dramatic equaliser from Dalian Atkinson, whose own elevation to international football may not be long delayed.

His goal here was the sort which has become his trademark - a rampaging breakaway and a shot thrashed in on the run from 15 yards. It was entirely typical of a pulsating match.

Villa might have supplied the opening goal earlier than United's 17th-minute strike had not Dean Saunders impeded Atkinson as he challenged for Earl Barrett's cross. A good opportunity was wasted, and United quickly profited from their reprieve.

Their stride accelerated from canter to gallop when a one-two between Ryan Giggs and Paul Ince carved out an opening for the England midfielder. In collison with Nigel Spink, Ince was injured in the act of shooting, but the ball ran obligingly for Sharpe, who steered it in.

Villa drew breath and came driving back, their passing both easy on the eye and devilishly difficult for United to combat.

Equality was not long in coming. The first half was heading for stoppage time when Keane's failure to cut out a long clearance from Paul McGrath let in Atkinson, who ran from half-way in the inside-left channel before beating Peter Schmeichel.

An inspirational goal, and Villa were duly inspired. They might have been 3-1 up after 50 minutes, but Schmeichel repelled Saunders' spectacular shot with an equally spectacular save, and Kevin Richardson's 25-yarder thumped a post.

United countered with a crisp header from Andrei Kanchelskis and a blinding miss from Giggs. Ince's long ball enabled the Welsh winger to beat the offside picket and it seemed he must score. Wrong. His left-foot shot cannoned out off Nigel Spink's right-hand post, leaving United players everywhere looking to the heavens in despair.

For a long time Villa seemed the likelier winners, but they were caught on the break, decisively, after 74 minutes, when Ince sent Sharpe through a square defence and the winger drew Spink before shooting coolly into the goalkeeper's right-hand corner.

It was some finish - in every sense.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Spink; Barrett, McGrath, Teale, Small; Houghton (Whittingham, 79), Richardson, Parker, Staunton (Froggatt, 77); Saunders, Atkinson. Substitute not used: Bosnich (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Ince, Keane, Sharpe; Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Ferguson, McClair, Sealey (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill).

Reid's target, page 31