After Roberto Mancini's Italianate negativity had killed the Manchester derby in midweek, Gérard Houllier's more expansive approach and Sir Alex Ferguson's response produced one of the best halves of football seen this season, for which both sets of supporters rightly awarded their team a standing ovation. The applause from Manchester United's followers reflectedrelief at having snatched a draw after trailing by two goals with 10 minutes to play; the home crowd's appreciation combined frustration at surrendering that lead with pride at their young side's display.
It was after this fixture 15 years ago, of course, that Alan Hansen famously informed the nation that "you win nothing with kids". Unitedproved him wrong that season but for now they remain caught in transition. Ferguson, relieved as he was, knew that a draw was insufficient, offering Chelsea the opportunity to move six points ahead of them by beating Sunderland today.
Yesterday, however, Villa were really the team who sent out the boys to perform a man's job. Barry Bannan and Jonathan Hogg in central midfield were not only fresh-faced but pint-sized, yet both did well. Villa were also short – in both senses – further forward, the absence of John Carew and Emile Heskey leaving Gabriel Agbonlahor to fight for the crosses sent over by Marc Albrighton and Stewart Downing. Unsurprisingly, he tended to lose out to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
When Villa played the ball on the ground, however, after hitting the frame of the goal twice in three minutes, Ashley Young won and con-verted a penalty and then Albrighton tapped in Downing's low centre. But with the Premier League's last remaining unbeaten record apparently a lost cause, Federico Machedaretrieved one goal and Vidic headed the equaliser. Six of United's seven away games have now been drawn, and Ferguson's emotions were understandably mixed.
"We could have lost six goals in the second half," he said without great exaggeration. "Great credit to Aston Villa for the way they got stuck in, tackled and fought. It made it very difficult for us. But when you're two-nil down with 10 minutes to go and get a point, you have to be pleased. And another five minutes and we'd have won the match."
He was probably right about that. Even after equalising, United kept Chris Smalling, a centre-half, up with the attack, and forced three chances in added time alone. For Houllier, feelings were equally mixed. "If someone had said at the beginning that we'd draw with United with the kids we had out there, we'd have taken that," he said. "But we thought we should have won."
Sportingly, he would not be drawn on whether two United players might have been sent off: Wes Brown for denying Ashley Young a scoring chance in conceding the penalty; and Vidic for wild celebrations with the crowd when he had already received a yellow card.
Fabio Capello in the directors' box saw Ferdinand do well, Michael Carrick play more patchily. Downing was the star for him out on the left, while Agbonlahor is still struggling for full fitness after his recent groin operation. Frustratingly for the England manager, who is short of options at right-back with Glen Johnson not playing well when he is playing at all, the two players in that position here were Luke Young and Brown, both of whom have voluntarily terminatedtheir international careers.
Carrick and Darren Fletcher might have been expected to exert greater control over their youthful opponents. The upshot was stalemate in a disappointing first half.
The second half was a different tale from first to last. Albrighton twice outmuscled Park Ji-Sung to break away without reward, then frittered away the best chance of the first hour with a header across goal.
In the 66th minute James Collins headed a Downing cross againstthe underside of the bar and just afterwards Agbonlahor shot against a post. United, under the cosh,finally received a telling blow when Agbonlahor played in Ashley Young, who was fouled by Brown before calmly putting away the penalty.
Ferguson immediately pulled off the ineffective Berbatov and Javier Hernandez only to see Villa score again through Albrighton. But as Villa sat back Macheda thumped in from Fletcher's back-heel and Vidic, unmarked at the back post, headed in Nani's centre.
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: Downing
Match rating: 7/10