Indeed, considerably better. By this stage last year, United were already trailing Jose Mourinho's men, never challenged them, and concluded the season applauding the new champions on to the pitch before losing to them.
Not least of the explanations for the transformation is that Ruud van Nistelrooy, absent at this stage last season, is playing, is fit and is complementing a voracious Wayne Rooney, who has already scored in Europe, the Premiership and for England.
Here yesterday, the Dutchman's 66th-minute winner, after he had appeared at the far post to convert the opportunity when Olof Mellberg deflected Cristiano Ronaldo's cross into his path, increased his United tally for the season to three. Last season, his total in an injury-disrupted Premiership campaign was a mere six. His manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, wearing a light suit which reflected his mood, insisted: "Ruud's season last season was fragmented, and it was partly our fault in bringing him back too early for the Milan [Champions' League] game. His fitness has been fantastic in pre-season and we are getting the benefit of that."
The United manager added: "There are goals here - I can smell them. We had some chances and their defence and keeper Thomas Sorensen had fantastic games. One-nil at home early in the season against a team who made it difficult for us is fine. They kept us from getting real momentum."
The Villa manager, David O'Leary, was without key players, including the injured Kevin Phillips and the suspended Lee Hendrie, and for much of the match Nolberto Solano - possibly omitted from the starting line-up because of suggestions of a "makeweight" transfer to Liverpool, with Milan Baros making the reverse move. But it was a fitful, uninspired performance from which only Sorensen warranted acclaim. His United counterpart, Edwin van der Sar, was never seriously examined.
Sorensen, who clearly would have preferred the opposition of Eriksson's England on Wednesday to Ferguson's United yesterday, was solely responsible for frustrating the hosts for so long. Villa notionally deployed a 4-5-1 system, with Juan Pablo Angel the lone striker, but in reality it was more like 6-4-0, particularly in the second half, when their only mission was containment. The Dane produced six excellent saves, possibly the pick of them his deflection of Park Ji-Sung's venomous drive on to the bar before half-time. The South Korean, signed for £4m from PSV Eindhoven, has featured highly in Ferguson's recent dispatches, and is blessed with phenomenal energy. He lacks composure, though, as he illustrated when he dashed on to Rooney's inviting return pass close to goal but wasted a fine chance.
Rooney actually beat the goalkeeper with a 25-yard drive, but Peter Whittingham made a goal-line clearance. The teenager may have promised to clean up his disciplinary act, but frustration again proved his undoing when the referee, Phil Dowd, cautioned him for a foul on Eric Djemba-Djemba, returning to the club of his anonymity.
On the hour, Ronaldo and Gabriel Heinze were introduced; belatedly, it appeared, in the case of the latter. The move had its desired effect of disturbing Villa's rhythm, and within minutes the former found the latter with a free-kick, but his header was within range of Sorensen. Then Darren Fletcher's tantalising cross from the right found Ronaldo, who headed across Sorensen, but the Dane stretched to paw the ball to safety.
The heartbreak for United continued as Van Nistelrooy just failed to convert Gary Neville's low cross. Yet you sensed that eventually sheer attrition would tell, and it did, with the Dutchman maintaining United's 100 per cent record.
Scholes forced yet another excellent save from Sorensen and was then booked for one of his trademark late challenges. Some things in football never change. Scholes's mistimed tackles; O'Leary's concerns about Villa's dearth of players. "I am an attack-minded coach and like to take people on, but circumstances dictated my plans because we had a few players injured," said O'Leary. "We defended really well until Olof Mellberg made a mistake and we gave a stupid ball away."
He added: "Everyone is working to bring players in, and not just a striker [alluding to Baros]. Within the budget we are trying to do that." Asked if he was troubled by Villa's failure to achieve a first Premiership victory, he retorted: "If we keep this small squad we have together, I wouldn't be too worried."
The Glazer brothers won't be too worried, either. They happily signed autographs, no doubt relieved that those most vehemently opposed to their family's presence were absent. They could have been back home in Florida watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in action, but favoured "soccer" from their sports portfolio. Van Nistelrooy's contribution and a decent second half from their newly acquired club vindicated that decision.
Man of the match
The Danish goalkeeper deserved a better fate after six splendid saves. No chance with United's winner.
- More about:
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Jose Mourinho
- Manchester United
- Premier League
- Real Madrid
- Ruud Van Nistelrooy
- Sir Alex Ferguson
- Stephen Carter
- Wayne Rooney