Just when it seemed that Manchester United's season was to unravel a little more, a goal of historic proportions from another of the academy prodigies whom Sir Alex Ferguson keeps receiving and whom Rafael Benitez, much to his own fury, does not.
If 17-year-old Federico Macheda – known as "Kiko" to his team-mates and unknown to pretty much everyone else – never scores again at Old Trafford, his extraordinary 93rd-minute goal, securing a 3-2 win over Aston Villa and taking United back to the top of the table last night, assigns him a permanent place in United folklore. It also delivers some serious momentum back to Ferguson's side, who showed scant little of it and had seemed doomed to lose three successive league matches for the first time since 2001 until Cristiano Ronaldo, taking himself to the top of the Premier League scorers' table, began an improbable fightback.
Ronaldo scored twice but the day belonged to Macheda. The teenager later revealed that he had been due to fly out to join the Italian Under-18s until Ferguson indicated that, with Wayne Rooney suspended and Dimitar Berbatov injured, he would be needed for United's bench yesterday, instead. When his moment arrived, on the hour, he seized it, looking penetrative before spinning past Luke Young and unleashing his winner in the 93rd minute of play. (Yossi Benayoun's for Liverpool at Fulham on Saturday had come in the 92nd).
Macheda is pictured on his Facebook site with a bevy of delectable women but there will be some more careful image management from now on. What had Ferguson's instructions been, he was asked. "Just play simple, play, just play," he replied, with a grin as wide as the Irwell, before his captain Gary Neville bestowed him with the man of the match winner's champagne. "Just take it home," Neville quietly advised the teenager, who will not reach the legal drinking age until 22 August. And was scoring the only thing in his mind when he received Ryan Giggs' ball? "Yes. To score a goal," said Macheda, who ran to his father, Pascuale, his mother and brother after his finish.
Neville said he was "just grateful" and that was not surprising. Shorn of all but one of his defensive mainstays, Ferguson first tried fielding the club captain in central defence against the height of John Carew, then was forced to switch him and John O'Shea around after Carew climbed above a statuesque Neville to equalise Ronaldo's opener.
Neville, Patrice Evra and John O'Shea were all culpable when Gabriel Agbonlahor sent Villa ahead on 58 minutes, prompting Macheda's arrival four minutes later. By the time the winner came, 17-year-old Danny Welbeck was also up front for United.
Gambling was the only solution to United's struggle, reflected Ferguson, who agreed that Macheda's winner compared with Steve Bruce's title-winning late pair of goals against Sheffield Wednesday, in injury time, 16 years ago. "We've come from behind and that's the significance of it if you go back to '93," he said. "But this is a far more mature team in terms of handling situations like today."
Ferguson, who admitted that playing Neville after his single reserve team game in six weeks had been a "gamble", suggested that Liverpool – now a point behind United with a game more played – are not necessarily his prime challengers. "We accept Liverpool's challenge but I think that the winner of [the] Liverpool/Chelsea [Champions League quarter-final] will be the biggest threat," he said. "So many times it's become such an emotional picture between the two clubs, never a lot of goals in it. Whoever wins, it will be a big step forward for them."
Ferguson's own attempt to get beyond Porto in United's quarter-final tomorrow is boosted by the return of Rio Ferdinand, who yesterday said he expects to play, and Nemanja Vidic, as well as Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes – both suspended yesterday.
Villa's pursuit of fourth spot has taken another dent and Martin O'Neill felt they could have had more help from the referee Mike Riley. Ashley Young certainly seemed to have been impeded by Neville in the Villa box in the first half. "Let me bleat for a moment," O'Neill said. "The referee played five minutes which was no surprise. He wouldn't have played five minutes at Villa Park. We all need a slice of luck – even Sir Alex, but he doesn't need referees and linesmen to help him every week," O'Neill said.
"The officials also got three offside decisions wrong when we were clean through," he complained. "The thing is we can take great heart from the performance. But we are really disappointed with the result because I didn't feel we deserved that.
"You are never comfortable against United, but I felt we were in commanding form and it looked as though we could withstand anything."
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