Styles steals limelight as Villa suffer stage fright

Aston Villa 0 Manchester United 2
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The Independent Football

It was not so much that Villa stumbled at the final hurdle in the Great European Chase, more that they were mugged, embarrassed and deservedly beaten by a United side reduced to nine men in the closing stages after a display of gauleiter officiating by Rob Styles, refereeing's king of the cards.

It was not so much that Villa stumbled at the final hurdle in the Great European Chase, more that they were mugged, embarrassed and deservedly beaten by a United side reduced to nine men in the closing stages after a display of gauleiter officiating by Rob Styles, refereeing's king of the cards.

The destination of this match was decided inside the first 10 minutes with goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy and thereafter Villa were dependent on Liverpool doing them a favour. The point gained by Newcastle at Anfield was, cruelly, enough to deny Villa their first gallop in Europe since 1990, but they could not complain about this defeat.

United set about them as if it was they, and not the home team, who were desperate for the points and until Mr Styles found the full range of his production gestures in the second half - a total of eight yellows and two reds as a result of second yellows issued to Darren Fletcher and Ronaldo - the match flowed excitingly.

If Villa were eager for victory it hardly ever showed, especially in the first half when, with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes working their miracles in midfield and Ronaldo showing the cleanest of heels to Jlloyd Samuel every time he was in possession, United were back to their classy best after recent disappointments. Villa were left gasping at the first goal. Fletcher played a short ball to Ronaldo, who accelerated to the verge of the penalty area before unleashing a vicious, dipping, swerving shot which beat Thomas Sorensen comprehensively at his near post.

While Villa and their fans were still trying to come to terms with that setback, they suffered another. Scholes pumped a long ball in from the left, the young centre-back Liam Ridgewell missed it and it ran on for Van Nistelrooy to put his name on the scoring list for the second straight week, rounding Sorensen to tuck home.

Samuel was spoken to by Mr Styles early on for hacking at Ronaldo, and so regularly was he being passed that one supporter lamented: "Just beat him once." Instead, it was the referee who inflicted punishment on the dancing Portuguese, flaunting a yellow card for what he classed as diving.

If this was the only card of the opening half, things hotted up on the restart as Villa attempted to take the battle to United and Mr Styles, who may have clinched the Golden Flourish award by upping his season's total to 76 yellows and 12 reds, the best (or depending on your view, the worst) in the Premiership.

One of those booked was Juan Pablo Angel for collapsing in the penalty box as Villa desperately sought to cut the deficit. The closest they came was Gareth Barry's close-in slam which rebounded off Tim Howard's legs.

United could have widened the gap, Giggs and Van Nistelrooy missing good chances, but it was resilience they needed to show, and did, for the last quarter of an hour when first Fletcher was sent off for a second bookable offence and then Ronaldo rather stupidly ran on to put the ball in the net after the whistle had gone for offside.

The Holte End's biggest cheer greeted Liverpool's goal at Anfield, but there was no second cheer and, as Villa manager David O'Leary readily conceded: "We were just outclassed."

Aston Villa 0 Manchester United 2
Ronaldo 4, Van Nistelrooy 10

Half-time: 0-2 Attendance: 42,573

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