Manchester United overtook rivals City into third place in the Premier League as a double from Ander Herrera and Wayne Rooney’s late stunner were enough to see off battling Aston Villa.
It was a fifth consecutive victory for Louis van Gaal’s men as consistency, a word rarely uttered around Old Trafford since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, returns to the United vocabulary.
The hosts greeted the warm spring sunshine with a lukewarm first-half display. Nevertheless they went ahead on 43 minutes after Daley Blind’s industrious work on the left flank was capped off by Ander Herrera’s tidy finish.
United doubled their advantage with 11 minutes to go as captain Rooney brought down Angel di Maria’s searching cross with his left foot before lashing a half-volley past Brad Guzan with his right.
Christian Benteke cranked up the pressure on the Red Devils’ defence immediately after the restart, but the out-of-sorts hosts held firm before Herrera’s second.
Now closer to Chelsea in top spot than Liverpool in fifth, the omens are good for those in the red side of Manchester.
Despite fine victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool in recent weeks, Van Gaal’s men only needed to think back to December for a reminder of the unpredictable nature of life without Ferguson at the helm.
After a well-needed win over Brendan Rodgers’ Reds at Christmas, a 1-1 draw at Villa Park began a torrid run of form which saw them drop seven points in four matches.
But things are slowly reverting to type. Performances have been relegated to a secondary issue as Van Gaal leads a ruthless charge towards Champions League qualification.
22 points out of a possible 27, since the defeat away to Swansea City, had seen the Red Devils supplant their place in the top four and narrow the gap on Manchester City.
Should the Dutchman be able to mastermind a purple-patch in form sufficient enough to see them finish above Pellegrini’s stuttering side, he will go some way to dispelling the unpleasant taste left by David Moyes’ disastrous nine months in the hot seat.
To say their progress is ahead of schedule would perhaps be forgetting just what an enormous footballing juggernaut United are, for any season without European football is a near-apocalyptic crisis.
But the United of old are slowly creeping back from wherever they’ve been hibernating.
Villa, too, have enjoyed happier times lately after the misery of Paul Lambert’s slow and painful exit as boss.
The 1-0 defeat to Swansea City, before the international break, ended a run of three consecutive wins as the revival under Tim Sherwood was just hitting full steam.
Looking promising on the counter-attack, however, Villa’s impotency in attack reared its ugly head once more.
Still the Premier League’s lowest goalscorers by quite some distance, with just 19, Sherwood’s promise to get Christian Benteke firing again had so far gone unfulfilled - until today.
Meanwhile the defensive frailties which have caused Van Gaal such severe headaches since he arrived in Manchester were on show again with both Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind making do at the back.
Rooney, whose leadership was praised by his manager in his programme notes, was his usual menacing self and was denied a penalty after a clumsy – but fair - challenge by Ciaran Clark.
Former Villain Ashley Young was greeted with a less-than affectionate response from the visiting supporters but had a hand in the opener. Expertly finding Blind, on the left, who then set up Herrera to finish, United went into the break ahead.
The hosts were given an almighty fright when play was resumed, however, as Andreas Weimann danced through the backline before offloading to Benteke who blazed over.
The rejuvenated Marouane Fellaini, who Van Gaal described as ‘undroppable’ in midweek, almost punished them further moments later with a looping header from Valencia’s cross.
But for the glove of Guzan, the Red Devils could have been out of sight.
Indeed many of the 75,397 spectators in the ground thought they were after Rooney’s stunning strike from the edge of the area, but Benteke’s quick-fire reply kept United on their toes.
They needn't have worried, though, as Herrera was on hand to apply the finish once again after neat interplay between Rooney and Juan Mata to make it three.
Champagne football it was not, but the United renaissance continues in earnest.Reuse content