Having been temporarily displaced by Tottenham, Manchester United regained second place in the Premier League at a distance of five points behind neighbours City but it was a victory that came at a cost. The champions lost their striker Javier Hernandez with torn ankle ligaments ahead of their vital Champions League match in Basle on Wednesday.
Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed that the Mexican will miss the trip to Switzerland, where United need at least a point to be sure of qualifying for the knockout phase. "We are hoping it is not too serious but it looks like he will be out for three to four weeks," Ferguson said. "We are not having a good time with injuries at the moment and that's why you need a strong squad."
Among their strikers, United are already without Dimitar Berbatov, also because of an ankle problem, and Michael Owen, who has a thigh injury, although Danny Welbeck, who had been a doubtful starter last night with a muscle strain, looked sharp enough when he came off the bench in the second half.
Bizarrely, Hernandez was one of three players who suffered injuries in incidents where no other player was involved. Villa goalkeeper Shay Given was carried off with a pulled hamstring while Jermaine Jenas, on loan from Tottenham and making his first start following a series of problems, broke down in similar fashion to Hernandez, this time with a suspected achilles tendon injury. Injuries apart, Ferguson continues to scratch his head over United's lack of goals. It is 28 matches now since they failed to score at least once but have managed only one in each of their past seven Premier League fixtures.
Yet United had dominated the opening half so thoroughly that a haul looked to be on the cards. Villa, in the words of their own manager, were "insipid" and must have wondered how they managed to reach half-time only one goal behind.
Anders Lindegaard, preferred to a rested David de Gea in goal, had littleto do but watch, and United can have seldom looked so comfortable this season. Even the blow of losing Hernandez so early in the match did little to disturb their easy rhythm.
Bringing on Antonio Valencia, they scarcely missed a stride and went ahead after 20 minutes when Phil Jones scored his first senior goal. It was created by a smooth break along the left flank that ended with Nani delivering a dipping cross into the six-yard box, where Jones moved into space between two defenders and sidefooted home on the volley.
They could soon have doubled the lead. Villa, always struggling to withstand the pace of United's forward movement, were stretched again as Valencia sped down the right and when the winger crossed towards the left-hand post he found Nani arriving unmarked to test Given with a flying header he did well to punch away.
United had lost to Villa only once in their previous 31 meetings and not at Villa Park since the opening day of the 1995-96 season and given Villa's run of one win in six before last night, the last thing McLeish needed was a defeat as one-sided as this was threatening to be. The renewed conviction with which his side approached the second half suggestedstrong words had been spoken during the interval.
The introduction of Stiliyan Petrov for Chris Herd injected a little more savvy to midfield and the injury to Jenas did prompt McLeish to supplement his attacking options with Emile Heskey, who went close with a header before the centre-back James Collins forced Lindegaard to make an acrobatic leap to tip the ball over his crossbar.
Yet United, while obliged to work now to repel Villa's pressure, remained a threat on the break. The home defence did a good enough job containing Wayne Rooney but they were almost undone a couple of times by Ashley Young, back at Villa Park for the first time since his summer move to Old Trafford, and Welbeck looked unlucky to be denied a goal by an offside flag in the closing moments.
McLeish confirmed afterwards that Charles N'Zogbia had been omitted from the Villa line-up for a breach of club discipline, having missed a treatment session last week.
Aston Villa (4-1-2-2-1): Given (Guzan, 38); Hutton, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; Herd (Petrov, 59); Bannan, Jenas (Heskey, 63); Albrighton, Agbonlahor; Bent.
Manchester Utd (4-4-2): Lindegaard; Smalling, Vidic, Ferdinand (Giggs, 64), Evra; Nani, Carrick, Jones, Young (Welbeck, 78); Hernandez (Valencia, 12), Rooney.
Referee Lee Probert.
Man of the match Nani (Manchester Utd).
Match rating 7/10.