In a season that has had its fair share of kicks to the teeth, this was perhaps the swiftest and most forceful. On the balance of the game, this might have been the best team performance Aston Villa has put together all season. Losing this game in such a manner was unpleasant, and I will admit to being pretty upset right now. But I have little doubt that, when looking back on things in 24 hours or so, what I take away from this game will be overwhelmingly positive.
Just as I'd hoped, the team came out and sought to play the game the way they've been playing it all season long. And though United had more of the ball, they couldn't do much with it while Villa put together promising spell after promising spell. They finally broke through in first-half stoppage time, with what seems to be the consensus moment-of-the-season so far; on the break, Andi Weimann released Christian Benteke down the left flank. After Benteke was done making Chris Smalling look like a ragdoll, he found Weimann's streaking run into the box and sent in a low cross, which was drilled past David de Gea. It was a dream goal and a dream move; Weimann's vision on the break, Benteke's sheer abuse of Smalling and calm and intelligence on the cross, the laser beam finish. And for the whistle to blow the second United took the ensuing kickoff was huge; for Villa to go into the break on that high was a big boost to an underdog side that played very well in the first half.
At the start of the second it was more of the same. United poking and prodding, but having little luck. And then, out of nowhere, Stephen Ireland found Gabby Agbonlahor in space down the flank, and Villa's elder statesman* placed an inch-perfect ball just out of de Gea's reach and into the path of Weimann, making yet another perfectly timed run into the box. 2-0. Euphoria. Mayhem. And nagging at the back of the brain, a familiar sense of inevitability and dread.
And of course, as you've probably gathered, that sense was justified. United pulled back their first just shy of the hour mark, with Chicharito-who was, I am increasingly convinced, put on this Earth for the sole purpose of tormenting me-tracking down a perfect over-the-top ball from Paul Scholes and finding the touch just in time to send it through the legs of Brad Guzan. Five minutes later it was Chicharito again, pounding Rafael's long cross-box ball into the ground, up, off a helpless and blameless Ron Vlaar and into the net to equalize. For the first time all day, Villa looked rattled, panicked and disorganized, and a third didn't seem to far away.
Encouragingly though, after a few minutes of terror, Villa regrouped and were back to doing what they'd been doing all day; keeping things tight at the back, ceding some possession and playing intelligently, but switching into an aggressive, attacking mode when the opportunities presented themselves. For the next fifteen minutes, Villa looked just as likely to score as United, and they came achingly close to doing so after Barry Bannan's perfectly placed cross ended with a stinging header from Weimann being saved well by de Gea. But in the end it was of course United; in the 87th minute, Robin van Persie bent in a wicked curled free kick that Chicharito (because of course it was Chicharito) met with a diving header to seal the win. There were 5 minutes of time added on, but United were content to bat the ball around the back and Villa just didn't have anything else to give as the clock ticked along towards the final whistle.
It was an agonizing loss, to be sure. But let's not miss the forest for the trees; it was agonizing because Aston Villa played really, very, tremendously well all afternoon. So often we've seen this team beat themselves. Today, that wasn't the case. They forced Manchester United to beat them, and the Premier League's leading club only just managed to do it. Was it the best performance United will have all season? Not by a long shot, but Villa can't control that. They can only give it their best, and they came as close to their best today as they have all season. It wasn't good enough today, against this opponent. But on other days, against other teams? I feel pretty confident in saying that it would have been.
It's happening. I'm very confident in saying that. This team is beginning to gel, and they're beginning to play well with some consistency. And I truly believe that they've got plenty of improving yet to do. This game sucked, but I can tell you this; I'm not numb anymore. And I have been quite numb for quite awhile now. This hurt, really badly, and it's been awhile since I felt that to such an extent with this team. That means that we're getting there. Keep the faith, everyone; something's building here, and it may well end up being quite special.
*I have yet to decide whether this is sarcastic or not.