Villa prove worthy of top-four billing

Aston Villa 0 Manchester United 0: Point allows O'Neill's men to leapfrog Arsenal as United miss the chance to narrow gap on Liverpool and Chelsea
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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson is adamant that Manchester United must cut the gap on the Premier League leaders to no more than two points by Hogmanay, but they wasted an opportunity yesterday when they failed to defeat their perennial rabbits, Aston Villa.

A 12th successive victory over Martin O'Neill's side would have carried them to within six points of the top with a game in hand after Chelsea and Liverpool were surprisingly held on their own patches. Villa, however, are showing signs of becoming a more resilient group than in the past, as a well-merited win at Arsenal last week demonstrated. Indeed, but for recent defeats by Newcastle and Middlesbrough, it would be them and not Ferguson's team who hold third place this morning. They just about deserved the draw that ended a long run of United victories on this ground.

In an open game, albeit with fewer scoring chances than normal between these two, neither side could quite take advantage of results earlier in the day. Defences were generally in control, with Martin Laursen for the home side and Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic for the visitors all excellent performers.

Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick, an accomplished partnership in central midfield for England against Germany, also did well in cancelling each other out in that key area yesterday, and neither Gabriel Agbonlahor nor Cristiano Ronaldo was able to make his pace and dribbling ability count.

With Wayne Rooney frittering away the one outstanding chance of the match, another Englishman, Ashley Young, emerged as the most dangerous attacker on either side, as well as bringing off the best tackle, to prevent Park Ji-Sung scoring.

The unexpected lack of action in the two penalty areas also led to extra attention being given to the one moment of controversy, when Vidic held back Agbonlahor as the pair converged on the penalty area. It was a foul, though only outside the area, which did not prevent an outburst from O'Neill. "It's a foul and as a consequence the player has to be sent off because it's a goalscoring opportunity," the Villa manager said.

Ronaldo, used down the left throughout, might have been expected to have taken advantage of facing an unfamiliar right-back in Nigel Reo-Coker, but he suffered a frustrating and painful evening that ended with his being substituted and hobbling down the tunnel, gesturing at home supporters. From the start he took to cutting inside on his right foot and the one and only time he could get in a shot, the fierce attempt drew a fine save from Brad Friedel, who was equalling David James' Premier League record of an astonishing 166 consecutive games – more than four seasons' worth.

As the visiting hordes chanted "attack, attack, attack", which is what they are used to seeing from their team on this ground, Ferguson prowled the technical area to encourage them to do just that, making the most of his right to roam before a two-match touchline ban kicks in. There were few opportunities, however, until close to the half-time interval.

In the 38th minute Rooney slipped Park through for what looked for all the world like the opening goal until Ashley Young, tracking back, slid in for a tackle that had to be immaculately timed, and was.

Edwin van der Sar in United's goal was discomfited for the first time right at the start of the second half, forced to stretch up and backwards as Ashley Young floated an optimistic cross-shot from the right. It was the most sustained period of pressure Villa had managed, continuing when Agbonlahor was offered the chance to use his pace for the first time. Barry sent him down the left and Vidic was clearly holding him but the referee Chris Foy was deaf to furious appeals from the Holte End and Villa's manager.

Rooney missed his side's best opportunity when Carrick's precise lob forward opened up the defence. The England striker, who has been waiting more than a month for his 100th club goal, struck his shot wildly into the stand as the ball sat up for him. As a result, United failed to score for the first time in 37 League games and suffered their first goalless draw in 50. All in all, something of a collector's item.

Attendance: 42,585

Referee: Chris Foy

Man of the match: A Young

Match rating: 7/10