Cristiano Ronaldo limped out of Villa Park on Saturday evening after one of the more infuriating performances of his Manchester United career and is a doubt for tomorrow night's Champions League tie away to Villarreal. As Ronaldo hobbled along the touchline, following his 82nd-minute substitution, he involved himself in a spat with supporters who were, remorselessly, barracking him. Ronaldo responded by pointing to the No 7 on his shorts and angrily waving his figure in the air to indicate he was "number one" – presumably in reference to his expected inauguration as Fifa's World Player of the Year.
Not on this display he wasn't. Although the game's major issues were United's failure to capitalise on Chelsea and Liverpool dropping points; Villa's march into the top four and, above all, Martin O'Neill's accusation that the referee, Chris Foy, lacked the courage to send off Nemanja Vidic, after the United defender fouled Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ronaldo was at best quixotic, at worst uninterested. It was as if a chilly November on the West Midlands was beneath him.
But first Vidic's challenge on Agbonlahor. As England's latest international player appeared to have rounded the defender, he was pulled back and grappled before, finally, Vidic brought him down just inside the area. He probably also took the ball first in that instance but O'Neill's argument was that if it was not a penalty then it was certainly a sending-off as Vidic, the last man, had denied Agbonlahor a goalscoring chance.
"It was a foul and a sending-off offence," O'Neill maintained. "The major decision of the game. It was too big a decision for him [Foy]? The referee thought of the consequences and decided not to give it. It doesn't matter if it was a penalty kick or not even though I think it was."
Interestingly, Vidic agreed that he had impeded Agbonlahor but, obviously, refused to concur that it was a penalty. "The referee could have given the foul 30 yards from goal, but once we reached the box I touched the ball and I'm sure it wasn't a penalty," he said. If Villa felt aggrieved over that, with their frustrated manager sailing close to the window in terms of the Football Association's Respect campaign, then United will ponder on Ronaldo's contribution.
In the sixth minute he was challenged by Steve Sidwell and writhed around theatrically, he then had a fierce shot pushed away by Brad Friedel, gestured to the crowd after being penalised for fouling Gareth Barry and – three times – lay on the ground long after play had continued after being tackled. The final challenge, by Stiliyan Petrov, led to his withdrawal, but long before then he had lost interest, emerging for the second half with his sleeves pulled down over his hands looking for all the world that this was the last place on earth he wanted to be. "His leg's in a mess, to be honest with you," Sir Alex Ferguson later said. "He'll be doubtful for Tuesday, I'm sure of that."
Medical bulletins from United's manager are not to be trusted – Rio Ferdinand played despite being described as a "major doubt" – but with Dimitar Berbatov also absent and other injuries biting and with Wayne Rooney not at his best and missing the game's best chance by blasting over, leaving him stranded on 99 club goals, it was a frustrating encounter.
Not that Villa cared. Having beaten Arsenal they pressed and harried and it was clear that O'Neill did not want a repeat of last season's humiliation and a prolongation of United's ridiculous supremacy at Villa Park which had run to 11 league games.
There's grit there. With a mix of self-deprecation and deflection, O'Neill continues to dance around the subject of whether or not Villa can finish in the top four – Ferguson stated they could – but defender Luke Young betrayed his manager's ambition.
"The manager is desperate to break into the top four. He's made that clear to us," he said.
Villa too, had chances. Ashley Young, who had brilliantly tracked back to tackle Park Ji-Sung , also narrowly failed to meet James Milner's cross and although Ferdinand had a point in saying United had done most of the attacking – they had 62 per cent of possession – he was wrong to claim "we were the only team out there trying to score" especially after Villa stepped things up in the second half. It was then that United needed Ronaldo most. Unfortunately, he decided to absent himself.
Aston Villa (4-1-4-1): Friedel; Reo-Coker, Laursen, Davies, L Young; Petrov; Milner, Sidwell (Carew, 81), Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Harewood, Knight, Salifou, Shorey, Gardner.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Park, Carrick, Giggs, Ronaldo (Anderson, 82); Tevez (Nani, 71), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Wellbeck, Rafael, Evans, Gibson.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Aston Villa Davies.
Man of the match: Barry.