Some of what has happened recently had left a feeling that beneath some good results both teams were near the edge of self-doubt. There was United's pasting by Juventus, which a 4-1 win over Forest last weekend failed to paper over, and Villa's draw at Chelsea last Sunday was one of those games in which they failed to sustain their superiority. Perhaps Villa gained the most from yesterday while United gathered little in anticipation of Wednesday's Champions Cup tie against Rapid Vienna.
The fault that has nagged at United this season is their tendency to waste possession. Here, though, the return of Roy Keane after his knee operation established a solidity in midfield. Michael Oakes pushed away a flicked shot from Jordi Cruyff and deflected a similarly dangerous shot from David Beckham, while Eric Cantona directed in behind. Alex Ferguson had decided United's attack could begin without Karel Poborsky, and he had Ryan Giggs in a central midfield role with Cruyff nominally wide and drifting inside.
The pressure from Keane and Beckham on the right side, plus Villa's careless passing, should have benefited United, who kept Raimond van der Gouw, deputising for the indisposed Peter Schmeichel, from any serious involvement throughout. But for the strength in the air of Ugo Ehiogu, Villa would certainly have succumbed to one of Beckham's first-half crosses, and even Dwight Yorke was at one stage on his own line blocking a shot from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
In an attempt to make something positive out of so much promise, Ferguson replaced Solskjaer with Andy Cole, who had scored three goals in a midweek reserve game, but his impact was negated by a second-half change of attitude by Villa. Whereas in the first half they were almost permanently retreating, Yorke spurred them by getting behind Gary Neville and taking other defenders with him, allowing Savo Milosevic more space.
United's hopes came by way of breakaways, though they were threatening enough. A Giggs drive was turned on to the post by Oakes, who then saw Giggs cross beyond his reach and into the path of Cole, whose header hit the crossbar.
United tried adding width and initiative by bringing on Poborsky, but it remained Yorke's movement that was the crucial reason why the game's pattern changed. Even Cantona drifted aimlessly, and by the end United had no intention of committing any last-minute heroics.