Manchester United 2 Aston Villa 1: Swede dreams are made of this

The first day at the office had unfolded to a well-rehearsed script for Henrik Larsson. Greeted with wild acclaim by an expectant Old Trafford, its numbers swelled by dozens of pilgrims from Celtic Park, the venerable Swede responded as Martin O'Neill feared he would by illuminating their FA Cup reunion with vision and velvet touches, scoring on his Manchester United debut and taking his leave to a standing ovation. Then came the dawning that, no matter what is achieved over the next 10 weeks, the mantle of United's revered Scandinavian predator will always remain the preserve of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Stoppage time had just commenced and Sir Alex Ferguson had begun to ponder Aston Villa's possible team for the third-round replay when the Norwegian took possession of a Wayne Rooney pass on the angle of the opposition penalty area. At that moment someone stepped into the United manager's line of sight and obstructed him from what came next, although, with the 33-year-old poised, he must surely have known.

In 1999, Solskjaer struck in similar fashion to destroy Liverpool's hopes in the fourth round and grant United another 2-1 reprieve en route to their historic treble. Eight years on, and looking eight days older despite the stress of spending two years fighting to save his career from a serious knee injury, his ability to twist the knife at the most critical juncture remains undiminished. This time it was the turn of O'Neill and Villa, like Liverpool, Bayern Munich and countless more before, to rue not only Solskjaer's instinct but the luxury at Ferguson's disposal when he can replace one outstanding veteran striker with another.

"I didn't see the goal because someone blocked my view but when Ole is on the pitch you know you've always got a chance," Ferguson said. "To have nine goals so far [this season] is a phenomenal effort."

Although, as the United manager was forced to concede, it was only due to a calamitous response by Gabor Kiraly in the Villa goal that Solskjaer was able to stir the memories, and the Premiership leaders were spared a further examination of their Cup ambitions in the Midlands in 10 days' time.

Though Larsson and Solskjaer showed the clinical touch so many in red lacked, they were not the only European Cup-winning strikers on display. When Milan Baros equalised with 16 minutes remaining, finding the bottom corner of Tomasz Kuszczak's goal after receiving a mis-hit shot from Gary Cahill, the Villa ploy of containment and counter-attack looked set to succeed.

O'Neill's team would have scored minutes earlier had Isaiah Osbourne not poked his effort straight at United's stand-in keeper, but the Ulsterman must have suspected that, having prospered through Larsson's brilliance in Scotland, he would be the one to suffer for the Swede's enduring desire on his United debut. He was not mistaken.

For 55 minutes United laboured to add penetration to their play, as they had done at Newcastle on New Year's Day, although the blame could not be pinned on their debutant, whose movement, speed of thought and speed of touch slotted neatly into their style despite the fact he has not played a competitive game since mid-December. Instead, Villa's compact game plan, with Gavin McCann and Osbourne providing dual protection to the back four, their isolation of Cristiano Ronaldo for long periods and the performance of Wayne Rooney in front of goal were the principal causes of an afternoon of toil.

As always it was impossible to fault Rooney's endeavour but he lacks the ruthlessness of a Larsson inside the penalty area and allowed Villa to escape twice before the interval when he lingered too long on inviting passes from his new strike partner. Rooney's goal return stands at one in 12 games, and United must be thankful his creativity is not suffering a similar malaise.

Having wasted two good openings and had his one rapid reaction saved by Kiraly in the first half, Rooney provided Larsson with his first shot in a United shirt in the 16th minute, before Michael Carrick followed suit with a rare piercing pass over the Villa defence. On both occasions the on-loan Hungarian goalkeeper thwarted United's new No 17 but he was beaten in the 55th minute when Carrick, Ji Sung Park and Rooney combined to present Larsson with a half-chance he dispatched swiftly into the top corner.

"He's always capable of doing that," rued O'Neill. Unfortunately for the Villa manager, the same theory also applied to Kiraly and Solskjaer.

Goals: Larsson (55) 1-0; Baros (74) 1-1; Solskjaer (90) 2-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Evra; Park (Fletcher, 72), Carrick (O'Shea, 89), Giggs, Ronaldo; Rooney, Larsson (Solskjaer, 78). Substitutes not used: Van der Sar (gk), Heinze.

Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Kiraly; Hughes, Cahill, Ridgewell, Bouma; McCann, Osbourne; Agbonlahor, Petrov (Samuel, 66), Barry; Angel (Baros, 53). Substitutes not used: Olejnik (gk), Davis, Whittingham.

Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).

Booked: Aston Villa: Cahill.

Man of the match: Larsson.

Attendance: 74,924.

* The Bayern Munich general manager, Uli Hoeness, has stated that Owen Hargreaves, linked with a move to Manchester United since last summer, will not leave the club during the January transfer window. Hargreaves "will definitely not be leaving this winter", Hoeness said. "Beyond that, we will see." Meanwhile, the United right-back Phil Bardsley, 21, is set to join Aston Villa on loan and could make his debut in the home game against Watford on 20 January.

FA Cup fourth-round draw

Today's draw will be televised live on BBC2 at 1.30pm. The 45 teams in the pot, including the either/ors, are:

Arsenal; Barnet or Colchester (playing tomorrow); Barnsley or Southend (replay: 16 Jan); Blackburn; Blackpool; Bolton; Bristol Rovers; Coventry or Bristol City (replay: 16 Jan); Chelsea; Crystal Palace; Derby; Fulham or Leicester City (replay: 17 Jan); Ipswich or Chester (replay: 16 Jan); Luton Town or QPR (replay: 16 Jan); Manchester City or Sheffield Wed (replay: 17 Jan); Manchester Utd; Middlesbrough or Hull (replay: 16 Jan); Newcastle or Birmingham (replay: 17 Jan); Norwich City; Nottingham Forest; Oldham or Wolves (replay: 16 Jan); Plymouth or Peterborough (replay: 16 Jan); Portsmouth; Preston; Reading or Burnley (playing tomorrow); Southampton; Stoke; Swansea City; Tottenham or Cardiff (replay: 17 Jan); Watford; West Bromwich; West Ham.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?