No more of that one-nil nonsense from Manchester United. The champions performed with all their traditional verve and enterprise in recovering from a slow start and a goal's deficit to score four times for the second successive Premier League game.
Three of the goals arrived in nine minutes, before Aston Villa had their captain Nigel Reo-Coker and goalkeeper Scott Carson sent off; Wayne Rooney missed a subsequent penalty but had already scored twice, giving him six goals in five games for club and country. It was all vibrantly entertaining stuff for a full house uncomfortably aware that United have now won on the last 10 visits – including two FA Cup semi-finals – to their favourite away ground.
Even without Cristiano Ronaldo, who did not appear until the last few minutes, they bristled with adventurous intent, fielding Paul Scholes and the improving Anderson as the supposedly defensive midfield players inside Nani and Ryan Giggs, while Carlos Tevez dropped off Rooney to link the play to supreme effect. "The performance was absolutely superb," purred Sir Alex Ferguson, "probably our best of the season."
Two red cards meant this was not the day to judge how effectively Martin O'Neill is reviving a fine old club. The evidence since being outplayed on the first weekend of the season by Liverpool is that he has done much good work, abetted by an encouragingly successful youth policy.
Sensibly declining to discuss his interest in England's managerial position while there is currently no vacancy, he was more concerned yesterday with some slack defending and Rob Styles' decision to show Reo-Coker a second yellow card: "The goals we conceded were really poor. And the sending-off was a big moment. I thought it was a foul but not a booking, desperately harsh."
The visitors reached their first milestone only a minute after the kick-off, though they did not progress far beyond it before their progress was rudely interrupted. After 60 seconds play, it was 10 hours of Premier League football without conceding a goal, but with another 11 minutes gone, Edwin Van der Sar, back in the side after injury, was picking the ball from his net.
Ashley Young retrieved a wayward cross by Craig Gardner and his inswinging centre was deftly headed in by Gabriel Agbonlahor, who had sneaked in on the wrong side of Wes Brown. United, in fact, were pushed back for most of the first 25 minutes, during which period, Gardner, Young and Luke Moore all missed the target, the latter having been gifted a chance by Rio Ferdinand's casualness in possession.
In the second quarter of the game, however, Ferguson's team exerted a degree of control that had not seemed possible earlier. First warning came with a superb move in which Tevez stepped over Scholes' pass and was denied by Carson's save as Rooney played him in. A deluge like the one that struck Wigan a fortnight ago was about to be unleashed. It began in the 36th minute as sleepy defending allowed Rooney to tuck in Nani's low cross at the far post.
After Ferdinand almost conceded a penalty, nicking Agbonlahor's foot, Tevez drifted in from the left to supply Rooney for his second goal and just before the interval Young cleared Gerard Pique's header off the line, only for Ferdinand to return the ball, which Gardner hooked into his own net.
O'Neill waited only eight minutes into the second half before making a double substitution, though he could hardly have imagined that his captain and goalkeeper would soon be leaving the pitch as well. Reo-Coker committed ill-timed tackles on Tevez and Anderson in the space of six minutes and had to go, the two yellow cards giving the midfielder six this season. Carson, bringing down Tevez after Rooney crossed, did not protest at his own dismissal, though there might just have been a covering defender behind him.
Stuart Taylor came on in goal and immediately saved a weak penalty from Rooney, who then struck the bar. The goalkeeper also denied Tevez from six yards out and substitute Ronaldo twice, but 15 minutes from the end he was beaten when Giggs' shot took two deflections. That just about summed up Villa's day – and United's irresistible nature.