United move up to third as superb Giggs makes his case on the pitch

Aston Villa 0 - Manchester United 1
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The Spirit of 1999 was more than just a little evident in Manchester United last night, but if Ryan Giggs in a white away shirt scoring the match-winner at Villa Park sounds familiar, then so was the resolve with which his side hung on for victory to stay in the Premiership title race.

The spirit of 1999 was more than just a little evident in Manchester United last night, but if Ryan Giggs in a white away shirt scoring the match-winner at Villa Park sounds familiar, then so was the resolve of his side. The race for the Premiership title has not become any easier for Sir Alex Ferguson, but he goes into 2005 knowing that he still has a chance.

This was not quite the vintage Giggs who stole past an entire Arsenal defence to decide the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park more than five years ago, but it was a performance that got close. Giggs will enter the most critical period of his new contract negotiations next month with a strong hand to play. His goal took United into third place on goal difference and within a single point of Arsenal above them.

For Ferguson, the seventh victory in eight Premiership games was a signal to open the mind games with Jose Mourinho, but the United manager will have to do a lot better than this effort. "We are climbing the table in terms of getting close to the teams behind Chelsea, but it's Chelsea who are the problem because they are on such a great run," he chuckled. "This was our hardest away game of the season and Arsenal and Chelsea have to come here."

A quick look at the match programme would have told him that Chelsea have beaten him to it. They came to Villa Park for the second match of their season and held out for a goalless draw, although his point at least holds true for Arsenal. "We showed a lot of guts and great character," Ferguson said. "We weren't going to lose that match." And he was right, although it was not a victory without its occasional scare.

There is a more enduring quality about this United than last season, and it is epitomised nowhere more than at left-back, where Gabriel Heinze pushed Giggs close as United's most influential man. Ferguson even felt confident enough to start the match with Roy Keane on the bench. Or rather, as if to make a point, his captain spent much of it standing by the bench and was introduced after the hour to tighten the midfield.

United had been forced to realign themselves to Villa's five-man midfield, and Rooney was dragged back into midfield, but once they did they looked fluent. Giggs glided in from the right on 18 minutes and not even Mathieu Berson grabbing a handful of his shirt slowed him down. That shot was deflected over.

Whether the 31-year-old winger gets the two-year contract extension from 2006 that he desires could be decided in the next five months. His third Premiership goal of the season arrived four minutes before half-time from a move that flowed up from Rio Ferdinand, in to Giggs, back out right to John O'Shea and then back in to the Welshman. From the right side of the box Giggs hit a low, fierce drive into the corner of Sorensen's goal.

The other man in need of a new contract at Old Trafford is Roy Carroll, but the United goalkeeper was very nearly badly embarrassed just before his side's first goal. His throw-out struck a retreating Carlton Cole on the back and fell to Nolberto Solano whose cross was met by Liam Ridgewell. His header fell straight into Carroll's hands.

David O'Leary is hardly blessed with a squad of anything like the depth of Ferguson's and he sent his assistant, Roy Aitken, in after the match to keep up the plea for more transfer funds in January. "I've just spoken to Alex Ferguson and he says that you need 24 senior players in this league," Aitken said. He would not confirm that James Beattie is a serious target, although Villa are expected to make a bid of around £6.5m.

In the 15 minutes after the break, Villa stretched United. Mikaël Silvestre had to charge down a shot from Lee Hendrie on the edge of the box and Juan Pablo Angel turned Ferdinand but could not get a shot away. On the hour, Keane stepped up to the touchline, along with Cristiano Ronaldo, to reinforce the midfield and United barely looked back.

Alan Smith hit the bar in the last minute when he should have scored from Ronaldo's cross, but the victory will have told Ferguson one thing above all. That seven wins in the last eight would, in any season other than this, be title-winning form.

Aston Villa (4-5-1): Sorensen; De La Cruz, Ridgewell, Mellberg, Barry; Solano, Berson (S Moore, 87), Hendrie (Whittingham, 67), Davis, Cole (L Moore, 55); Angel. Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Drobny.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll; O'Shea (Keane, 60), Silvestre, Ferdinand, Heinze; Fletcher, Scholes, P Neville, Giggs; Rooney (Ronaldo, 61), Smith. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Bellion, Miller.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).