For the second time in three seasons, Aston Villa's visions of becoming the first side to beat Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup since Bournemouth in 1984 were rendered illusory as Paul Scholes pounced for two trademark goals at Villa Park yesterday.
With eerie echoes of the equivalent stage in 2002, an awesome demonstration of squad depth turned the tie in United's favour. On that occasion, Villa led 2-0 when Ruud Van Nistelrooy was summoned from the bench to score both the equaliser and the winner.
This time, with David O'Leary's side deservedly ahead through Gareth Barry's goal, Sir Alex Ferguson sent on not only the Dutchman but also Roy Keane. The latter's presence freed Scholes from conventional midfield duties, and within 13 minutes a slender Villa advantage had been transformed into a seventh consecutive win for United.
"Paul Scholes is a genius - the way he ghosts into spaces, he is so hard to pick up," the United manager said after a performance by the latterday Martin Peters that must have left the watching Sven Goran Eriksson wondering why he has not scored in his last 24 matches for England.
Of the twin substitution - a devastating psychological flourish from Ferguson - O'Leary remarked on how "nice" it had been to see them in their tracksuits. "I thought they had the big guns out there in the first half, but they wheeled out even bigger ones in the second."
The Villa manager, who has still to record a victory over Ferguson in five years of trying, added: "At least it took the Full Monty to beat us. We had them rattled in the opening 45 minutes so Sir Alex had to do something, Can you ever want for a better double act to come on?"
For Ferguson, the afternoon finished with an abundance of positives. Apart from Scholes' finishing, Tim Howard kept the champions alive with vital early saves while Wes Brown, making his first start since May, grew in authority.
"We played some great football out there," Ferguson purred, conceding that "in an ideal world" he would have withheld Van Nistelrooy and Keane to keep them fresh for Wednesday's Premiership trip to Bolton. That he was forced to bring them on was a tribute to Villa, who have made progress during the month since they surrendered 4-0 at Old Trafford. They were well worth their breakthrough.
With Villa fans screaming for a foul by Nicky Butt on Gavin McCann, Chris Foy played advantage as Barry took possession. The midfielder's 18-yard shot, mishit with his seldom-used right foot, took a deflection off Brown that left Howard hopelessly wrong-footed.
United came close to levelling when Thomas Sorensen touched John O'Shea's header on to the underside of the bar and Mikaël Silvestre's follow-up was blocked by Jlloyd Samuel. But with Diego Forlan and Kleberson off the pace, Villa reached the 55th minute in good heart.
Then came the reinforcements. Within eight minutes, Butt had played one of the passes of the season to Keane. His scuffed pass reached Ryan Giggs, whose cut-back from the right was prodded in at close range by Scholes a split second ahead of Van Nistelrooy.
Five minutes later, Scholes' beautifully weighted ball to Giggs - again in an unaccustomed right-wing role - led to the Welshman crossing. As static defenders looked on, Scholes turned the move into a long-distance one-two, a classic half-volley at the near post producing his seventh goal of a season that still promises much for United.
Goals: Barry (19) 1-0; Scholes (63) 1-1; Scholes (68) 1-2.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; De La Cruz, Mellberg, Johnsen, Samuel; Hendrie (Hitzlsperger, h-t), McCann, Whittingham, Barry; Angel, Vassell (S Moore, 74). Substitutes not used: Crouch, Ridgewell, Postma (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Howard; G Neville, Brown, Silvestre, OíShea (Keane, 55); Kleberson (Fletcher, 84), Butt, Scholes, Fortune; Forlan (Van Nistelrooy, 55), Giggs. Substitutes not used: Bellion, Carroll (gk).
Referee: M Riley (Leeds).
Booking: United: Silvestre.
Man of the match: Scholes.
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