Aston Villa 0 Manchester United 3: Ronaldo turns contest into a rout

Virtuoso winger sets the tone as United show they are in mood for long title chase
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The Independent Football

The day before Tampa Bay take on Cleveland in the NFL, Malcolm Glazer's Manchester United buccaneers had much the better of Randy Lerner's Aston Villa browns - sorry, clarets - in the Premiership's equivalent fixture, scoring three times in the second half to run away with the points. What would Glazer's struggling American outfit not give for the equivalent of a Cristiano Ronaldo? Unloved and abused throughout the land, the young Portuguese maestro was again the outstanding figure as United shrugged off last weekend's unlucky defeat at West Ham to ensure that they will lead the table over Christmas.

The marathon that is the Premiership has now reached the halfway stage, and United are striding confidently with only Chelsea still in touch. Sir Alex Ferguson, thrilled by his team's performance after the interval, could not resist a jibe at Jose Mourinho: "That just proves we shouldn't listen too much to Jose. He said we wouldn't be top at Christmas. He had to apologise for lying about an Everton player in midweek. Perhaps he should be apologising again."

Oddly, the top two play three of the same teams over the so-called holiday period; Chelsea can only hope that when they follow United to Villa Park on Tuesday week, Martin O'Neill's side have still not recovered their early-season vim. Seven games without a win, they have fallen to their lowest position of the whole campaign and badly need to flash some of Mr Lerner's cash in the transfer window.

Youngsters such as Gabriel Agbonlahor, preferred to both Milan Baros and Juan Pablo Angel, are running out of steam. Villa could also do with Ronaldo being absent for their two visits to Old Trafford in January.

"A fantastic performance," Ferguson said. He might not have thought so at half-time, when with Wayne Rooney on the substitutes' bench, United appeared to lack a cutting edge. The manager felt Rooney, having played in the past 11 games and then missed two training sessions because of a family bereavement, was due a rest, but he was just preparing to bring him on as United made their superiority count early in the second half.

Pitch appearances before the game by Cyrille Regis and the 1981 championship-winning manager, Ron Saunders - who had not been back since - were a reminder of the days when Villa used to beat yesterday's visitors on a more regular basis. They have not done so since the opening day of the 1995-96 season. Since then United's favourite ground outside Manchester had yielded 11 wins (four in FA Cup semi-finals) and three draws.

The single moment that brought a full-throated roar from a sold-out Villa Park came in the 12th minute as Chris Sutton nodded on Gareth Barry's free-kick for the 20-year-old debutant Craig Gardner, whose header struck a post. If United did not come quite that close to a goal before half-time, they required the home defence to be on a state of fairly constant alert.

Gabor Kiraly was nevertheless required to make only one save, when Ronaldo headed Ryan Giggs's corner straight at him. Ronaldo and Park Ji-Sung wasted the first half-chance after the interval by over-elaboration inside the penalty area, but at least the Portuguese is becoming more self-aware. Conscious that it was not the first occasion on which he had been guilty of over-indulgence, he took the more direct route and a goal resulted. Giggs, on the halfway line, sent him away to sprint at three defenders, one of whom, Gary Cahill, managed to block the first shot but, like Kiraly, could not prevent Ronaldo's fierce follow-up flying into the net for the 2,000th United goal under Ferguson.

Six minutes later Ronaldo returned the favour with another glorious run down the left and a cut-back for Giggs, whose shot was deflected by Cahill for a corner. Giggs took it, Gavin McCann headed out and watched, as awestruck as the rest of the stadium as Paul Scholes hit a magnificent volley in off the crossbar from 25 yards.

It was not the ideal time to see Rooney coming on against you, as he set up Ronaldo for what might easily have been a third goal, Kiraly this time managing to get down and make the save. The same combination pulled Villa apart again eight minutes from time, Ronaldo tapping in Rooney's centre only to be given offside. So they did it again, this time bringing Gary Neville into the fun to receive from Rooney and cross for Ronaldo's second goal. It had become a rout.