The stadium announcer appeared to be a Villa fan. In a brave attempt to drum up some atmosphere for the club's first final at the new Wembley – one which left Sir Alex Ferguson so indifferent that he wiled away his post-match press conference tapping into a mobile phone – Martin O'Neill's players were introduced on the Tannoy as gladiators. So Carlos Cuellar was "the Spanish matador", James Collins "the Welsh warrior" and Ashley Young the "dazzling dribbler".
Perhaps it was in recognition of the fact that this big day belonged to Villa that United's players were kept out of this little introductory routine. Villa's fans, after all, were doing the singing on the London Underground at lunchtime."'My garden shed, is bigger than this...." they chanted when the new stadium loomed into view. Imagine their surprise when Gabby Agbonlahor started the match by actually living up to the billing – immediately driving Nemanja Vidic to distraction, if not to a sending off, and proving, just as he did when he scored in Villa's 1-0 win at Old Trafford in December, that he is perhaps the best counter-attacking striker in the country on his day.
O'Neill declared at Old Trafford after that Premier League match that his players might just provide "an opportunity there for Fabio Capello if he is having second thoughts about things." Capello doesn't seem to be having too many of those where some of Villa's young players are concerned. Emile Heskey remains in favour but Agbonlahor has been excluded again from the latest England squad. So too Young – Shaun Wright-Phillips has seemingly leapt above him in the pecking order. For half an hour both of those players threatened to give Capello those second thoughts. The contest between Young and Patrice Evra had always seemed like one of the most intriguing of the afternoon – it was Tottenham's Aaron Lennon who gave the Frenchman the runaround in last year's final – and Evra looked uncomfortable.
James Milner, Villa's star performer here, also revealed why he has been one of England's brightest causes for hope this season and Capello's countenance seemed to be one of mild satisfaction as he initially dominated the midfield. Taking one pass from Stewart Downing, another player with something to prove to the England manager, he forced a sharp save from Tomasz Kuszczak. Stephen Warnock, suddenly catapulted into a competition with Everton's Leighton Baines for the left-back's jersey for South Africa, halted Antonio Valencia's flights down the right, too. You almost detected an Italian grin.
More is the pity for both O'Neill and Capello that the life so drained away from Villa as the game wore on. Ferguson often comments on the fact that O'Neill's teams are easy to predict and the same goes for their counter-attacking style. United defended against it, defending from deep with Michael Carrick, who had a fine afternoon, in his own penalty area for large sections of the second half. Villa discovered precious few ways through and when they found one – Young skinned Darren Fletcher on one occasion just before the hour, pushing the ball around the inside and chasing around the outside – the final cross was painfully poor.
O'Neill celebrated the performance of his players in a characteristically effusive way later on, though that did not quite tally with the impression of what had played out on the pitch. Vidic was troubled only once more by Agbonlahor after the fifth-minute controversy which gave Villa their penalty and Jonny Evans was never put to anything like the test Everton laid on for him at Goodison Park nine days ago. O'Neill might be challenged on why he did not try Young running at Rafael da Silva, the full-back who has looked the weakest part of United's defence in recent months.
From the moment Wayne Rooney put United ahead there only seemed to be one winner. That was a shame, because Capello badly needs some gladiators and watching a team of them overcoming the odds is a more edifying one than seeing Ferguson handling text messages while he reflects on whether 34 trophies as United manager just might become 35 as the season wears on.Reuse content