Ronaldo adds kicks to tricks for United

Manchester United 3 - Aston Villa 1
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The Independent Football

Arsenal and Manchester United, it seems increasingly certain, are playing for second place in the Premiership. But that is a prize well worth having these days, a passport to an automatic Champions' League place and all the lucre that goes with it. So there was significance to United's victory yesterday, extending an impressive run to 10 wins and two draws from the last dozen matches and tucking them in behind Chelsea for the first time this season. Too far behind, is the problem.

Arsenal and Manchester United, it seems increasingly certain, are playing for second place in the Premiership. But that is a prize well worth having these days, a passport to an automatic Champions' League place and all the lucre that goes with it. So there was significance to United's victory yesterday, extending an impressive run to 10 wins and two draws from the last dozen matches and tucking them in behind Chelsea for the first time this season. Too far behind, is the problem.

Failing to bridge the gap is not for want of trying. They had even registered eight successive clean sheets - if a slightly grubby one against Tottenham is counted - until Gareth Barry unexpectedly equalised soon after half-time yesterday. But with Cristiano Ronaldo, the scorer of United's opener, at his tantalising best, superiority was soon re-established with goals by Louis Saha and Paul Scholes. The only downside was a booking for Roy Keane, one of six in an occasionally fractious match, which will rule him out of the FA Cup tie against Middlesbrough next Saturday. Before that comes an opportunity to take some frustration out on Chelsea in the home leg of the Carling Cup semi-final.

Villa, sixth last season, remain realistic about what they can achieve with a depleted squad this time. "When I was working out my list of points we need this season, I didn't put down Old Trafford for anything," said their manager, the whimsical David O'Leary. So it was a bonus to regain a foothold in the game after the interval, however briefly. As Sir Alex Ferguson said: "That goal was a shock and it woke us up and got us going again."

Having learnt a painful lesson in selecting a reserve team for the previous Old Trafford game, in the FA Cup against Exeter, and taken fewer chances for the replay last Wednesday, Ferguson went further by restoring Roy Carroll, Rio Ferdinand and Keane to the side. Ruud van Nistelrooy (due back for the Champions' League tie against Milan), Alan Smith and the unfortunate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are still missing, but Saha, coming in for Ryan Giggs as the attacking support to Wayne Rooney looked like a man successfully rediscovering form and fitness.

Saha, lively from the start, created the opening goal within eight minutes. Receiving from Keane, he played a sublime pass forward into the path of Ronaldo, who threaded it with equal accuracy past Thomas Sorensen. That did something to improve the Portuguese winger's reputation as the most profligate player in the Premiership, his previous 69 attempts on goal this season having brought a single success.

The average should have been further improved before half-time, as Villa's defence went missing when Scholes crossed from the left. But Ronaldo's header lacked power and was too close to the goalkeeper. Villa, even though they had not scored in four successive defeats away from home since November, were forced to come out by the early goal, and often supported the lone striker, Juan Pablo Angel, well, especially when Nolberto Solano and Barry got down the flanks.

The Colombian was allowed two headers, putting the first over the bar and the other straight at Carroll. The visitors' best effort, however, was a fierce strike by Solano following a corner, Carroll beating it out with some relief. But United were dangerous in most attacks against a suspect defence. Saha had headed Rooney's fine cross over the bar from close in after only six minutes, and later drifted inside and outside the young Liam Ridgewell before shooting at Sorensen.

United could not say they had not been warned, though events at the start of the second half still came as a shock. First Thomas Hitzlsperger, brought on at the interval for the ineffective Mathieu Berson, was set up by Barry for a drive to cause Carroll some anxiety. A few minutes later, United's defence was finally breached, for the first time in 13 hours.

Barry, ignored so strangely and for so long by England, began and started the move, first finding Ulises De la Cruz (an early substitute for the injured Mark Delaney), then playing a smart one-two with Solano before finishing well.

For a time Villa must have thought their luck, and their wretched fortunes against United had changed. Two goals in as many minutes altered their mood. In the 69th minute, as the pressure began to build again, Rooney crossed low and Saha stabbed the ball past an unbalanced Sorensen. One more minute and Ronaldo, running at the defence criss-crossing his legs, drilled in a shot that Sorensen ought to have held, for all the new Premiership ball's perversity. He merely palmed it into the air, giving Scholes an open net to head in to.

United were rampant, Villa stunned. Nor did the visitors receive any respite when Giggs and John O'Shea replaced Rooney and Scholes. Mikaël Silvestre was far enough forward to head over the bar and Sorensen had to scramble to nudge Keane's low drive past a post. There was one opportunity for the visitors to get back into the game, which they scorned. Luke Moore, having replaced Solano was presented with a similar chance to Scholes's as Barry's shot came back off the goalkeeper, but the young striker hooked a hurried shot over the bar.

Ronaldo, who might have had a hat-trick, was then denied even a second goal, screwing Gary Neville's cross wide. Visiting supporters apart, nobody at Old Trafford seemed to mind.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)

Villa will be pleased to see the back of him after his display of trickery, begun with a fine goal.

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