Forlan leaves Ferguson in good heart

Manchester United 4 Aston Villa 0
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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson had his heart rhythms sorted out this week and now - after the worrying irregularity of two straight defeats - his team have started ticking over smoothly again too.

The surgeon who carried out yesterday's operation was Ruud van Nistelrooy, with two scalpel-sharp incisions which had ensured by half-time that his manager's weekend would be free of stress.

United then virtually took the rest of the afternoon off, but in a remarkable closing minute, Van Nistelrooy's replacement, Diego Forlan, helped himself to a brace which made the scoreline reflect United's quality and Villa's wretchedness. And with United's main rivals in the three-horse race at the top of the Premiership slipping up, the horse-loving Ferguson will be delighted that all bets are on again.

The senior players rested for the Carling Cup defeat at West Brom all returned, fresh and eager to show that the previous week's loss to Chelsea was a distant memory. Captain Roy Keane led the way, sweeping up in front of his defenders, orchestrating the midfield and bursting forward into attack whenever he felt more clout was called for.

It wasn't quite classic United - Villa never forced them to move out of first gear - but there was no weak link, right from the cool assurance of the back four to the calm efficiency of the strikers.

By contrast, Villa showed almost no initiative, and Keane nearly punished them with an early shot that Lee Hendrie kicked off the line. But Villa's relief was short-lived. After just 15 minutes, their resistance was broken with the simplest of goals. United's strikers, Kleberson and Van Nistelrooy, combined down the middle with a neat one-two which allowed the Dutchman to finish unchallenged from six yards to register his 10th League goal of the season.

Keane had an optimistic penalty appeal turned down when he chased Ryan Giggs's pass into the box, but it scarcely mattered. On the stroke of half-time, Van Nistelrooy doubled his tally with an equally simple but beautifully executed strike. Giggs was allowed acres of room inside the box and he picked out the Dutchman, who cleverly pulled the ball down and back towards himself to create the space in which to slot it calmly home.

But for the occasional incursion by striker-turned-defender Dion Dublin, Villa scarcely got out of their own half in the first period, but having decided there was little to be gained from containment, they showed far more adven-ture after the break. United's goalkeeper, Tim Howard, was finally made to earn his money, tipping a Hendrie shot and a Mark Delaney cross over the bar.

Enter Forlan, whose first contribution was to set up Cristiano Ronaldo, but the latter's subsequent effort was wild and high. So the striker decided to show his young colleague how it should be done. He latched on to Howard's long clearance to loop a shot over Thomas Sorensen, and rounded off United's afternoon with a second goal inside a minute when he raced on to Kleberson's pass.

"We were beaten by the better side," said the Villa manager, David O'Leary. "When- ever they had a chance around goal they were there clinically. In the second half we had a lot more possession, but there was more poor defending and we were punished again.''

Ferguson said: "I think we needed another gear. We took it too easy. But when Ruud had done his job I decided to bring on Forlan. It wasn't easy to leave him out, and when he came on he did very well."

He probably won't, but Ferguson can afford to take it easy ahead of Tuesday's Champions' League visit by Stuttgart.

Manchester United 4 Aston Villa 0
Van Nistelrooy 16, 45, Forlan 90, 90

Half-time: 2-0 Attendance: 67,621