They held out with 10 men for an hour away from home against one of the best teams in the Premier League's chasing pack – so it could only be Manchester United who could glance over their shoulders as they left Villa Park and wonder what might have been.
This turned into a good night for United once the news of Chelsea's defeat came in from Goodison Park but it could have been so much better. A preposterous foul from Luis Nani earned him a red card that meant United had to adjust their formation more than once, but one thing never changed no matter how many they had on the pitch: they never stopped trying to win the game.
It is a simple principle of Sir Alex Ferguson's and it holds true at this stage of the season more than any other: his teams always believe they can win no matter how unpromising the circumstances. As his players tried to force the issue so their manager sent on Antonio Valencia and then Dimitar Berbatov, so United very nearly did it.
The main protagonist was Wayne Rooney who was once again the raging bull of United's attack although without all the old fury that used to characterise those games when he found his back pushed up against the wall. Down to 10 men, United found themselves in the fortunate position of having a player who was willing to do the job of two men.
Martin O'Neill picked out the moment when Rooney pursued Ashley Young down the right wing to win the ball with seven minutes of the game left as one of those defining moments. Those used to be the occasions when you held your breath as Rooney went charging in but there is something more refined these days about his all-consuming determination to win games.
O'Neill described Rooney as "one of the best players in the world who is absolutely at the top of his form" and it is him above all that Villa will fret over when they approach the Carling Cup final on 28 February. They have taken four points from United this season but they will do well to beat them for a second time this season at Wembley with Rooney in this kind of mood.
United are just a point behind Chelsea with 12 games left to play and they have got there without their two first-choice central defenders. For Villa, it seemed like the occasion just overwhelmed their younger players when it mattered most. They had the chance to beat United but O'Neill had to concede that when it came to it, his team just did not create enough chances. James Milner, Ashley Young and even Fabian Delph, making just his third Premier League start for Aston Villa, are fine young players but for the first two in particular, beating United last night just seemed like one step too far. Their manager pushed for a win with half an hour left by replacing Delph with John Carew to try to test United with a two-man attack but, aside from one limp penalty appeal, they never really got going.
They also suffered from the loss of Stilian Petrov to injury on 65 minutes, a consequence of the atrocious challenge from Nani that saw him dismissed. There was no previous confrontation that served as a warning for Nani's challenge but when it came, even Ferguson did not argue with the red card that referee Peter Walton dealt him.
Nani had not seen much of the ball before he lunged two-footed at Petrov on 29 minutes. Both feet were off the ground and his studs were raised as he went through the Villa midfielder. "He's gone in two-footed and you can't do that," said Ferguson who will lose the player for three games to suspension.
It was all the more unexpected because Nani has established himself impressively in the United team recently – his performance against Arsenal at the Emirates 12 days ago being the highlight – and as he made his way to the tunnel he must have felt like he had chucked a lot of that progress away with one daft tackle.
Carlos Cuellar had come close with a glancing header that Edwin van der Sar did well to turn over on 13 minutes. Six minutes later the Villa right-back did even better when Stewart Downing put the ball back into the box. It looped clear to Cuellar as Rafael Da Silva and Richard Dunne challenged and the defender placed his header over Van der Sar and into the far corner.
Villa deserved their lead but they let United back into the game far too easily. From Nani's cross on 23 minutes, Ryan Giggs' volley was not even on target. It struck the leg of James Collins and beat Brad Friedel easily.
United came at Villa in the second half. Giggs hurt his right arm in a collision and was replaced by Berbatov although the injury looked incidental. Ferguson was already planning to throw everything he had at Villa and with the Bulgarian playing through the middle, United switched back to a three-man attack with Rooney on the left. They did not finish the game playing like a team that was one man short.
Aston Villa (4-4-1-1): Friedel; Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, L Young; A Young, Petrov (Sidwell, 64), Delph (Carew, 58), Downing; Milner; Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Delfouneso, Davies, Salifou, Beye.
Manchester United (4-3-3): Van der Sar; R Da Silva, Brown, Evans, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes (Valencia, ht); Nani, Rooney, Giggs (Berbatov, 73). Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Neville, Owen, Park, Gibson.
Referee: P Walton (Northampton)
Booked: Manchester United Evans. Sent off: Nani (28).
Man of the match: Rooney.
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