Date: 5th January 2008 at 9:21pm
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I was not happy when we were drawn against Villa yet again. However, I can only assume that Villa fans hate our tied fortunes much more than I do…

United have a habit of winning comfortably at Villa Park and they have not abandoned it. I must admit though that the game looked set for a replay at Old Trafford as neither team displayed any particular attacking intent.

Virus-hit Rooney had a place on the bench only so United, in the absence of injured Carlos Tevez, started with a lone striker Louis Saha, supported by Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ji-sung Park. In theory, it should have been a fluid counter-attacking machine, in real life it was a unit that looked hopelessly out of ideas.

Not that Villa were any better. Though they played a though pressing game, our deep lying central midfielders, Anderson and Carrick had little problems. However, they seemed unable to spread the ball as expertly as their abilities would allow and it certainly contributed to United being out of shape.

Villa’s wide men caused severe trouble during our 4-1 win in October but this time it was different: Brown, who made no attacking impact, contained Agbonlahor (and Young when they swapped sides) with ease and Ashley Young was no match for Patrice Evra who had time to attack, too. John Carew was therefore isolated between our reliably solid central defenders.

United had their own share of problems. Saha was playing far too deep and was often crowded out by midfielders at the halfway line. If he managed to pass the ball up the field towards Giggs, Park or Ronaldo, they soon had to turn back or fight for a corner, because Saha was too deep to help them out… Ronaldo was marked expertly and he lacked the gulie to exploit the space left by his markers by hitting clever passes.

Predictably, the first half ended 0-0, with Petrov firing over the bar from a promising effort and Ronaldo’s shot was parried by Carson and Giggs embarassingly hit the rebound wide.

After the break, it was clear that Fergie had some strong words. Ronaldo tried to occupy the wide spaces more often, Saha stayed forward and Giggs began floating behind him while Anderson was much more active. However, sloppiness and lack of concentration meant that we were just as short of ideas as in the first half.

Villa’s attacks have not improved one bit. They tried to rely on crosses and set-pieces but failed to really test Van der Sar and it was clear that if United don’t score, it will be a bore draw and a replay. The game was screaming out for some inspiration and fortunately, the United bench had the answer.

Wayne Rooney came on with a little more than quarter of an hour to go. He made an instant impact. He expertly released Ronaldo on the right from the halfway line and arrived in time to fire Ronaldo’s low cross over the bar from inside the box. It was a sitter and I though we blew our chance of avoiding the replay but United were not to be thwarted.

Giggs retrieved a ball inside Villa’s half and passed it to Rooney. A burst of pace took the striker to the box where he knocked the ball to Anderson who played in Giggs. The Welshman held off Laursen and sent a low cross between Curties Davies’s legs, Ronaldo stole in front of the hapless Bouma and scored with an easy tap-in.

It was game over. Villa tried to press but United found their rhytm with the introduction of Rooney and were not to lose it. Another counterattack launched by Rooney ended with Carrick twice hitting Carson from promising positions but what he could not do, Rooney did.

The England striker, surely impressing Fabio Capello, released Ronaldo on the right with a magnificent long ball. The Portuguese took the ball back to the middle and tried to shoot but it was deflected off Bouma into the path of Rooney whose first-time effort found the way into the far corner.

And that was it. United were very, very far from their best in a dull and cagey encounter but still cruised to a thoroughly deserved 2-0 win – our tenth successive victory at Villa Park. Villa fans will surely pray that they avoid us next time…