When the Sky Sports camera was thrust into his face at the end, Federico Macheda planted a kiss – Steven Gerrard-style – right in the middle of the lens and frankly you would have expected nothing less. Half an hour earlier, barely anyone in Old Trafford had heard of this 17-year-old kid from Rome; by the end of the match grown men in the Stretford End were blowing kisses at him.
Macheda's winner felt like a seminal moment in the life of a great club: it curled past Brad Friedel like Norman Whiteside's winner flew past Neville Southall in the 1985 FA Cup final. That it was scored by a 17-year-old on his debut made it remarkable; that it came in the 93rd minute of a match United simply had to win was extraordinary. The names change, the generations come and go, but the drama associated with this club remains the same.
This young Italian, who has been at the club only 18 months, continues a tradition at Old Trafford of placing great faith – not to mention the future of the club – at the feet of young players. At 2-1 down, United had catastrophically let Liverpool back into the title race: even at 2-2 their only advantage was their game in hand. At 3-2 the whole picture changed. There was belief and there was hope as United went back to the top of the league.
Too young for his man of the match champagne, Macheda grabbed it from the hands of Gary Neville anyway just as he had taken United's title destiny by the scruff of the neck minutes earlier. A prolific reserve team goalscorer signed from Lazio's junior teams, he is still sufficiently naïve that on his Facebook page he had posted a picture of himself in a nightclub surrounded by women. At least if he finds himself in the same establishment again he will have no trouble persuading anyone he is genuinely a United player.
This was an epic occasion, one that some were already comparing with Steve Bruce's winner against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993 that paved the way for United's first Premier League title. Steady on. Certainly, both these games had a disproportionately large amount of injury time – there were five minutes of it yesterday. But there were times when Sir Alex Ferguson's players did not look worthy of a draw and in defence they were shot to bits.
It is rare for Ronaldo to be such a sideshow – even though he scored United's first two goals – and while it was his equaliser that dragged his team back into the game he was still infuriatingly ineffective at times. Carlos Tevez, given a start in the absence of Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov, was woefully ineffectual. Luis Nani was dreadful. Gary Neville did his best but was off the pace and John O'Shea was barely any better.
Watching from Merseyside, Liverpool's players must have thought they were looking at a badly wounded beast, one on the brink of losing three consecutive league games for the first time since December 2001. United's season appeared to be unravelling. Rio Ferdinand, injured, was in the stands with Nemanja Vidic prompting Ferguson into an ill-advised and short-lived experiment with Neville at centre-back.
Yet by the end of the match, and largely through the efforts of Macheda, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick – who dug in when it was required – it was Ferguson who was laying down the challenge to Liverpool. He said that he was not even convinced they were United's main threat, instead saying that whoever wins the Champions League tie between Liverpool and Chelsea will be the key challengers. That is officially the start of the title race mind games.
When Macheda came on after the hour, United at last had a presence in attack who made life as awkward for Villa's defence as John Carew had done for the home side. The only surprise in the substitution of Tevez in the 87th minute was that it did not happen earlier: he was replaced by Danny Welbeck and you have to wonder whether his and Macheda's rapid development will make Ferguson less prepared to pay out a transfer fee in excess of £20m for Tevez this summer.
Villa were excellent until United scented blood with Ronaldo's 80th-minute equaliser, and there were times when you could not conceive of them not winning. They play Everton next week in a game in which they must arrest their decline, now six points behind Arsenal in fourth place. Martin O'Neill's team were dominant in the early stages even though they went behind on 13 minutes.
It came from an indirect free-kick 11 yards out needlessly conceded by James Milner when he passed the ball back to Friedel. Giggs touched the ball to Ronaldo, who benefited from Friedel shoving O'Shea just at the critical moment the Villa goalkeeper should have had his gloves up. United did not deserve their lead and already they were showing signs of strain at the back.
Neville marginally beat Gabriel Agbonlahor in a race to the ball despite having been given a substantial head-start and from then on Old Trafford regarded each Neville challenge with trepidation. One minute later, close to the half-hour, Gareth Barry did well to get away from Patrice Evra and Jonny Evans on the left, he crossed and Neville did not even get off the ground as John Carew headed in.
Evans, still limping, was impressive but he could not make up for Neville's struggles at centre-half. After Villa's first goal, Ferguson moved Neville to right-back from where, in the 58th minute, he got nowhere near Carew as the Norwegian ran down the left wing and clipped a cross on to the head of Agbonlahor for Villa's second. Evra and Nani did a hopeless job of getting to the cross.
Ronaldo's equaliser looked like it might have been mishit: it was a shot from the edge of the area he conspired to drag past Friedel into the bottom left-hand corner. After that goal, with 10 minutes left, the life seemed to drain from Villa. Darren Fletcher and Welbeck both had shots saved before Macheda collected the ball from Giggs, turned and bent his shot into the far corner.
United were a mess at times, they are riddled with suspensions and injuries and the Champions League tie against Porto is coming up tomorrow. But Ferguson's teams have incredible reserves of character – even Rafael Benitez would have to agree that that is a fact.
Goals: Ronaldo (13) 1-0; Carew (29) 1-1; Agbonlahor (58) 1-2; Ronaldo (80) 2-2; Macheda (90) 3-2.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Neville, Evans, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Fletcher, Nani (Macheda, 61); Giggs, Tevez (Welbeck, 88). Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Park, Gibson, Martin, Eckersley.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young, Cuellar, Davies, Shorey; Milner (Reo-Coker, 76), Petrov, Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor, Carew. Substitutes not used: Delfouneso, Knight, Salifou, Guzan (gk), Gardner, Albrighton.
Referee: M Riley (West Yorkshire).
Booked: Aston Villa Milner, A Young.
Man of the match: Evans.
Italian Job: United snatch ‘Kiko’ from under noses of Lazio
He stole a leaf from Steven Gerrard's book by planting a smacker on a TV camera yesterday but it was Manchester United who stole Federico Macheda – the man known to his team-mates as Kiko – from Lazio's youth system, before they could sign him on apprentice terms.
Under Italian law, teams may not sign players until the age of 16, and that created a state of limbo at Lazio which enabled United to move in with a three-year offer, including a £73,000 annual salary. They also helped his father, Pascuale, find work in Manchester following the family's move to the city.
Macheda was 15 when spotted by United's Italian scouts, signed a month after his 16th birthday and underlined his promise with a hat-trick for United's reserves last week in a 3-3 draw at Newcastle. When he ran to his family after scoring yesterday it was his brother, 15-year-old Simone, whom he grabbed and embraced, with his mother, Loredana, and Pascuale in the row behind. "This is unbelievable after all we've been through and I was numb when he ran over to us," Macheda Snr said last night. "It's taken a few hours for it to dawn on me what's happened... [Lazio] would have loved him to stay but when Manchester United come calling it's not something you can pass up."
Little strokes of fate played their part. Macheda should have been with the Italy Under-19 set-up for their match against Ukraine yesterday but Ferguson said he needed him instead. That Macheda should have been sent on ahead of Danny Welbeck, who has scored three in 11 this season, underlines his value to his manager. He could be on the bench against Porto tomorrow night.
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