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.
* 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.