Manchester Utd 3 Aston Villa 1: Scholes shows his class is permanent

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The Independent Football

It would be wrong to applaud Paul Scholes as if he was impeccable yesterday. His first pass dribbled into touch and his second rolled with unerring accuracy to an Aston Villa player. Then he produced a performance of such quality it is hard to imagine any midfielder in Europe bettering it.

Scholes is a simple man who eschews the Premiership's usual trappings and yesterday his game epitomised him. Long or short, his passing was uncomplicated but frequently incisive. Cristiano Ronaldo has been hailed as United's match-winner, but, in his quiet manner, Scholes has been just as important. In this game he shrugged off Villa as adroitly as he evades unwanted media attention.

Controlling the flow like a quarterback, most of the home attacks stemmed from his clever feet. Park Ji-sung, Michael Carrick, with his first goal since Sir Alex Ferguson signed him last summer, and Ronaldo were the scorers but Scholes was the architect of a victory that was United's 14th in 17 Premiership matches.

That keeps United six points clear at the top of the Premiership as they prepare to travel to Arsenal next week, while Villa, who got a goal back through Gabriel Agbonlahor, are making worrying progress towards the Premiership's perilous zone. They have not won for 11 matches since beating Everton on 11 November. Yesterday, in the first half particularly, they were simply outclassed.

"There was a good precision and pace to our passing," Ferguson said. "We missed a few chances but it's not something we're worrying about because we have a lot of goalscorers." On Scholes, his tongue was in his cheek. "When he gets some composure he'll be all right." Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, was more expressive: "Majestic, wonderful."

Composure? If Scholes had been more relaxed he would have been asleep. His early errors were range finders and from then he propelled the ball around Old Trafford as if it was radar guided. One beautifully flighted sweep gave Gary Neville time to cross after five minutes and Henrik Larsson's header was denied only by an athletic save to his right by Thomas Sorensen.

Five minutes later Scholes delivered identically and this time Park was the beneficiary of Neville's curled pass from the right. His first attempt was blocked but when Gary Cahill's insipid clearance came back to the South Korean he drilled in a low shot.

United's pace and movement were ripping Villa to shreds and in the 13th minute they went 2-0 ahead. Scholes again was the instigator, chipping ahead for Carrick to slip his marker. United's £18.6 million midfielder spread Villa's defence further with a pass to the right flank to Park, who drew his full-back and slipped the ball inside for Carrick to drive past Sorensen.

Where was Ronaldo in all this? Lost in a blur of over-complication, but at his most showy he is always likely to burst into relevance and he got United's third after 35 minutes. Gavin McCann lost possession to Park when he should have cleared. Carrick pounced on this sloppiness and curled an impeccable cross for Ronaldo to head in at the far post.

That move seemed to emphasise United's authority so it was a surprise that the only goal of the second half fell to Villa. Milan Baros is not always noted for his eagerness to work for others but he was exemplary in chasing a ball into the corner in the 52nd minute. He then outpaced Nemanja Vidic along the byline before passing for Agbonlahor to lift into the roof of the net.

The Villa supporters chanted: "We're going to win 4-3" but it was the home team who could and should have got more goals. "I thought when Villa got their goal they would have a real go at us," Ferguson said, "but we did the sensible things, keeping possession."

Rooney, who pulled a shot wide when clear in the first half, squandered another opportunity in the 63rd minute after an immaculate chip from Scholes, Louis Saha's shot was cleared off the line by Cahill and Rooney hit the bar with a curling shot from the left of the area.

"We were well beaten," O'Neill said. "We gave ourselves a bit of a chance by getting back in the game after half-time but, in truth, United were too good for us."

No one more so than Scholes, who even avoided his trademark booking for his perpetually terrible tackling simply because Villa hardly ever caused a need to make a challenge. Well, he would not want to be noticed, would he?