Ashley Young's sideshow helps Manchester United romp home against Aston Villa
Manchester United 4 Aston Villa 0
Roberto Mancini said he had no faith in Aston Villa's ability to keep Manchester United's lead down to two points and Mystic Mancio was proved more right than he could ever have feared.
This was so one-sided that it meant his side's 6-1 destruction of Norwich only improved Manchester City's goal difference over United by one. It meant, too, that United are still on course to win their 20th title at the Etihad Stadium, although Rio Ferdinand said afterwards that it did not matter to him if they won it in his back garden.
"We are taking no notice of what anyone else does," he said. "Our pressure comes from within. From ourselves, from the fans and from the boss."
Yet it was a victory scarred by the twin themes that have run through this season – the question of video technology and whether big clubs get the big decisions on a weekend that saw the first penalty awarded against Real Madrid in a year.
If you could refer to your notes for the Manchester United versus Queen's Park Rangers game, we might save some time. Once more an unequal contest was tilted Manchester United's way by the softest of penalties won – if that is the word – by Ashley Young, who produced the kind of swallow dive that probably should have been reserved for the high boards at the Manchester Aquatics Centre. Had Mark Halsey had access to the kind of video replays that have been available in cricket and rugby for years, the controversy would have been stifled where it stood.
Again, one of Sir Alex Ferguson's former players, this time Alex McLeish, spat out his fury to the fourth official. Once more Wayne Rooney stepped up to take the penalty. The only difference was that the defender, Ciaran Clark rather than Shaun Derry, was not sent off and that Young was not offside.
It should be said that Ferguson has an abhorrence of diving and once warned Ruud van Nistelrooy to cut out the theatrics. He had criticised the award of the penalty against QPR and here he thought Clark had risked the penalty by leaving his leg out for Young to fall over, although the United manager found it hard to disguise his dislike of his midfielder's tactics.
Asked by MUTV if Young was a gaining a reputation as diver, Ferguson replied: "In the last week or two, yes. It is not a habitual thing and it is not something I have seen in him before."
Ferguson also said: "I think he played for the penalty. If the player [Clark] decides to leave his foot out and doesn't read the situation, then they will fall into this. It was a dramatic fall, he maybe overdid it, but it was a penalty. Good defenders would have read it better but this was a young lad, don't forget."
There were probably too many young lads in McLeish's squad for them to recover and United's grip tightened around Villa's throat with every minute.
Villa's fans, who since 1983 had seen their side win once at Old Trafford, had been moved from their usual position up 170 steps to the heights of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. They would have wanted to be further away. The fact that next Sunday United will encounter an Everton side that has not won at Old Trafford since 1992 and has been demoralised by defeat in the FA Cup semi-final could only encourage those who think they can smell the Brasso on the trophy.
"The name of the game now is to enjoy ourselves and play with the expression that we did today and we'll be all right." said Ferguson. "You can never be too confident in this game of football. My experience tells me there is always going to be something that's going to bite you on the bum."
McLeish remarked that if Villa were not to be dragged down into the relegation places, they would have to "bare their teeth" in their remaining fixtures, although here they mostly showed only gums.
There was the odd flurry. Stephen Ireland almost curled a shot round David de Gea's post and Emile Heskey's header forced the United keeper to tip smartly over his own bar. However, these were isolated shots in a one-sided war.
It says something that of the half-dozen games since the turn of the year that Manchester United have lost, Paul Scholes has only started one – the FA Cup defeat by Liverpool. Ferguson is a man never given to revealing his teams but after last Wednesday's defeat at Wigan, he was adamant that Scholes would play.
He was rewarded by a majestic performance marred by the odd primitive tackle. The highlight was a corner that was played out very wide by Young and met by Scholes on the full and on the tip of the "D" of the area. It crashed into the advertising hoardings like a shell.
A cross from Antonio Valencia was clipped goalwards by Danny Welbeck and saved by Shay Given, who possesses remarkable reactions for a man in his thirties. Ferguson thought the third goal, the product of a beautiful piece of interplay between Nani and Rooney, was the "killer" but very few would have imagined Villa recovering from a two-goal deficit.
It had been coming. James Collins, who had organised Villa's defence magnificently during the 1-1 draw at Anfield, had taken a fierce shot from Patrice Evra in what is politely referred to as "the groin" – moments later the Frenchman sent over a low cross that Nathan Baker chose to step over. Welbeck was lurking at the far post.
Thereafter the only question was the margin of victory and Nani's goal, United's fourth, deep into stoppage time was both simple and deserved. There were some portraits of various United players around Old Trafford, painted by Craig Redman with plenty of Caribbean colour. Nani was made to look like Carmen Miranda, although he finished rather better.
Man Utd: DE GEA 6/10, RAFAEL 7, EVANS 6, FERDINAND 6, EVRA 7, VALENCIA 6, SCHOLES 8, CARRICK 6, YOUNG 3, ROONEY 7, WELBECK 7
Aston Villa: GIVEN 7, LICHAJ 5, BAKER 5 COLLINS 7, HUTTON 5, AGBONLAHOR 5, IRELAND 6, CLARK 6, GARDNER 6, BANNAN 6, WEIMANN 6
Scorers. Man Utd: Rooney 7 pen, 73, Welbeck 43, Nani 90
Substitutes: Man Utd Nani 7 (Young, 61), Berbatov (Rooney, 74), Cleverley (Scholes, 78). Aston Villa Heskey 5 (Clark, 64), Carruthers (Ireland, 75), N'Zogbia (Weimann, 83).
Booked: Man Utd Carrick, Scholes, Nani. Aston Villa Gardner, Hutton, Bannan.
Man of the match Scholes. Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Man Utd 60% Aston Villa 40%.
Attempts on target: Man Utd 16 Aston Villa 4.
Referee M Halsey (Lancashire). Attendance 75,138.
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