It was Manchester United's chance to capitalise on everyone else's failure and go level on points with Chelsea by beating a side who had not won at Old Trafford since Martin O'Neill was winding up his playing career at Notts County. The final twist of the day's Premier League script really was the most extraordinary of all.
It wasn't the most improbable, though. United's struggle to finish games which they dominate like this has been a recurrent theme of this season, while the way that Villa have been overlooked while quietly collecting the scalps of the elite sides looks like a blinding oversight this morning, now that they have added Manchester United to their casualty list as well. Perhaps it was that bad opening day defeat to Wigan at home; perhaps the fact that they beat Liverpool on a Monday night when other sides were playing and Chelsea on a Saturday lunchtime. "There's good ability here that sometimes gets overlooked," manager O'Neill said last night. Not any longer.
Villa's victory presses further the England case of Gabriel Agbonlahor, who took his tally against United to four in seven games by rising above Nemanja Vidic to head home an Ashley Young cross which Tomasz Kuszczak should have come for. James Milner's performance in his third appearance in central midfield for O'Neill makes his case to Capello irrefutable: there is not a more versatile in-form player in England. But the men who O'Neill most has to thank are the defenders who stemmed tide after tide as United pushed for a comeback to go with the 3-2 win in this fixture last season which was crucial to their title.
Carlos Cuellar and Stiliyan Petrov were immovable and Richard Dunne's form will probably be providing Manchester City Mark Hughes with a sense of bewilderment today as he has been reborn since his summer move. "We've got a good atmosphere in the dressing room here. Everyone puts the work in," Dunne said. "United are always going to come on top of us. You know you are going to be under pressure."
Villa have stolen up to third in the table but United, five points above them, should be level with Chelsea. The game took a familiar pattern for them – 20 opening minutes of sublime, crisp passing but the lack of finish to go with it providing encouragement to their opponents. Villa had barely ventured out of their own half before Agbonlahor showed United the meaning of crisp finishing. It was something Antonio Valencia generally lacked and Wayne Rooney's frustrations took hold as they so often do when he is the lone striker.
He resorted to some penalty box theatrics, plunging to the turf after he had for once raced beyond Cuellar into the area and saw Luke Young approach. Giggs protested when Rooney was booked for simulation – but the perpetrator didn't. He knew. Taking on Evra's pass and lashing a shot into the underside of the crossbar didn't ease Rooney's state of mind, before the break.
Sir Alex Ferguson threw everything at Villa. Michael Owen arrived after the interval and Dimitar Berbatov, too, but profligacy reigned. Vidic's header from a Rooney corner was cleared off the line by the right foot of Downing. Berbatov kicked at the night air rather than the ball Michael Carrick crossed. And for all the pressure, Brad Friedel had only one good save – a Berbatov shot parried away.
O'Neill sought – as he so often does – to play down expectations. "The best four squads have been in the top four over the years," he said later. "The [same four] will rise to the top. Manchester City and Tottenham, despite their results today, will be very strong, we'll just try to hang in there." But Villa can't remain a secret forever.
O'Neill has experienced his first win at Old Trafford since he was managing Leicester – "I actually can't remember the day," he said last night – and has a taste for it.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Man of the match: Cuellar
Match rating: 8/10Reuse content