From the embers of the Premiership fire, apparently dead by mid-December, Manchester United fanned some flames to bring their supporters a warm glow on a bitter day with their sixth victory in seven games. The leaders, Chelsea, can hardly be said to be feeling the heat, but if they should lose at Arsenal this afternoon, their lead at Christmas will be reduced to a marginally less formidable six points.
The three United collected here came gift-wrapped, poor defensive work summing up a wretched Aston Villa performance and allowing Ruud van Nistelrooy's 15th goal of the season and Wayne Rooney's 10th. If only a single extra one from either player had come in Europe, the Champions' League draw on Friday would have been even more interesting.
Small consolation as it may seem, Sir Alex Ferguson believes that his team will now feel the benefit from a less demanding programme, though he feels they may have to remain unbeaten for the rest of the campaign to deny Chelsea.
That is asking a lot, for all the promise confirmed yesterday in the outstanding attacking partnership, backed up by a dominant midfield and even a solid defence. Alan Smith, suffering from a virus, was not missed as Darren Fletcher, the much criticised young Scot, enjoyed one of his better games - and the South Korean winger Park Ji-Sung tormented his old PSV Eindhoven team-mate Wilfred Bouma. This time, chants of "There's only one Keano" were a tribute to a departed hero rather than a complaint directed at the management.
"It's a hard place to come," Van Nistelrooy claimed later, though he can only have been referring to the M6 traffic. United have not lost here in a decade, winning seven of their 10 Premiership visits as well as four FA Cup semi-finals under Ferguson, who said of the reaction to departing the Champions' League: "You can wither and die or get off your backside and do something about it."
David O'Leary needs his moderate squad to take the same attitude. It was sad to see so many empty spaces at the Holte End, and Villa Park, still one of the great old grounds, was unusually devoid of atmosphere. Visitors' end apart, the place was flatter still once United scored. Fletcher created the opportunity with a perfect pass for Van Nistelrooy, who finished precisely with his left foot. As a former centre-half, O'Leary must have been upset at the ease with which his central defenders were bisected.
Weakness in that area had been illustrated a couple of minutes earlier when Rooney's pass reached Park, moving in from the right and easily shrugging off a weak challenge from Bouma to shoot against a post.
The one-sidedness stretched to half-time and beyond. Park set up Rooney, who shot wide, and Van Nistelrooy conjured an overhead kick out of nothing that Thomas Sorensen did well to touch over the crossbar. Before departing at the interval to boos, Villa had produced a solitary attempt, Liam Ridgewell's header being so tame it barely reached Edwin van der Sar.
United, in contrast, were so confident that even Rio Ferdinand - buoyed perhaps by his first goal for the club in midweek - once surged forward to the opposing penalty area; and four minutes into the second half they had another goal. Van Nistelrooy won a header out on the right touchline for Park, who threaded a pass through to prompt Rooney's shot beyond Sorensen and in off a post.
There followed, unexpectedly, quarter of an hour in which Villa threatened to make a contest of the procession. Juan Pablo Angel was on as a much-needed second striker to Milan Baros, who nodded his cross back across goal for Gareth Barry to drive a fraction wide. Then Steven Davis, quiet against the club said to fancy signing him, fed Angel for a low centre that Baros hit firmly against the bar.
But United were soon back in control, Rooney, an irrepressible menace, almost scoring with a scissor kick. In the final minute, Cristiano Ronaldo, on for Ryan Giggs and seeking some new confidence, crossed from the byline with an outrageous flick from behind his standing foot and Van Nistelrooy at the far post headed a whisker wide. O'Leary, who has been told he can only sign loan players in the transfer window, concluded: "We were outplayed and outclassed." He was not wrong.