Manchester United came to Villa Park riding a 24 match unbeaten streak. Crippled by injury, Gerard Houllier was forced to start a side heavy on youth and light on experience. This has all the indications of a potential thrashing. And yet for nearly 80 minutes, Aston Villa were the better side. To be honest, they wiped the floor with Manchester United. Manchester United. Three quarters of the midfield were playing for the reserves this time last year. Jonathan Hogg made his Premier League debut starting alongside Barry Bannan, making just his third start in the Premier League, in the central midfield. As excellent as Marc Albrighton has been this season he didn't appear in the starting lineup for Villa until the first game of the season. Gabriel Agbonlahor was making his first start since coming back from groin surgery. No reasonable person would give Villa a fighting chance coming into this game, but for most of the day they looked in every way superior to a team expected to make a run at the European Cup and challenge for the Premier League crown. The way things ended up was frustrating, I won't deny that. But there was just far too much good not to come out of the game with a positive feeling.
Things got off to a fairly timid start with a fair bit of conservative play from Villa and United looking to open up the defense methodically rather than going in for the quick strike. Villa were forced by circumstance to revert to a fairly flat 4-4-1-1 shape while United came out playing a standard 4-4-2 and for the first ten minutes or so it looked like it might be a bit of a grinder. United had the better of play early on but it wasn't particularly dangerous, with a few half-hearted efforts being ably handled by Brad Friedel when it was even necessary. The first half-hour was fairly boring to be honest, a lot of long-balls from Villa and a lot of runs to nowhere by United's attacking players. Things began to perk up a bit after United somehow managed to not score after a fiendishly clever set-piece; Nani faked a shot and instead sent a ball through to Evra down the left flank, the full back completely unmarked in acres of the space in the box. Fortunately for Villa no one else wearing a white shirt saw fit to follow him in and his dangerous low cross skipped harmlessly past the face of the goal and away from danger. A few minutes later things got a bit chippy when Chicharito voiced his displeasure with Luke Young's continuing to defend while a United player lay injured just outside the box; Young's contention seemed to be that if Chicharito wished for play to be halted it was up to him to put the ball out of play. It was a fairly bizarre contention from the young Mexican international, but despite a a huddle of senior players jawing at each other and a look of exasperation from the referee not much came of it.
The last ten minutes of the half were by comparison a flurry of activity with each side creating some dangerous chances and play flowing more freely than in the early going. The teams headed to the half with United superior in terms of possession and control of the pace but Villa having had the more promising efforts at goal. It wasn't especially pretty, but Villa were hanging in playing bunker-counter and their level of confidence seemed to progress towards the end. Still, adjustments were to come and though there was a feeling of positivity about things everyone knew that Sir Alex Ferguson would be making adjustments at the half. The question was whether Gerard Houllier would be able to do the same and keep things competitive.
The answer came quickly; yes, he was. Villa spent the majority of the first half playing their back line very deep and waiting for the counter; out of the gate it was apparent that the entire squad had shifted forward and rather than letting the opportunities come to them Villa were intent on creating them. Seeing the defense pushed so far ahead was initially a bit of a shock, but the strategy paid off and Villa looked a different team after the tactical changes. Ashley Young made his presence known for the first time all day, storming into United's half seemingly from nothing. Frustratingly he was unable make anything of the chances he created, looking less like one of Villa's elder statesmen and more like one of the greenhorns playing behind him. The atmosphere was increasingly tense, with Nani lucky to come out of an elbow to Stephen Warnock's face with only a yellow. Chicharito was similarly lucky a few minutes later after a rash challenge on --guess who-- Stephen Warnock. Warnock had a bit of a rough go on the afternoon, getting a boot to the face early on in addition to the two second half incidents. It's tempting to think that perhaps it was karmic retribution for the first 13 games.
Villa didn't slow, continuing to bring the pressure and putting United back on their heels. Stewart Downing sent one of the more perfect crosses you'll ever see only to have Marc Albrighton put the header just wide of the post. That old, wonderful feeling of inevitability began to creep in, until it was remembered that this Villa side had done this same thing all season. There's been no shortage of domination of the opposition this season, but it's completely irrelevant if you can't put the ball in the net and it felt like such a thing just wasn't destined to happen. It certainly didn't help change that perception when Villa found the woodwork twice in 90 seconds--first on a brilliantly taken header by James Collins and the second on a shot from Gabriel Agbonlahor in space from eight yards out. I remember my thoughts at this moment distinctly.; I didn't see anything but a 0-0 draw or a loss coming from this game, but when I realized that I'd likely have a positive feeling with either result I was able to admit to myself for the first time this year what this season is going to be all about.
With that in mind I was absolutely stunned just minutes later when Ashley Young was taken down by Wes Brown in the box and awarded a penalty just moments later. But given Villa's luck with penalties so far this season and the frustrating nature of the match to that point. But when Young slotted the ball home and Villa Park exploded, all of that faded. My mood went from stoic resignation to absolute euphoria. This had felt like a game Villa should probably win since the beginning of the second half, but it never felt like Villa actually would win. But now, all of a sudden, we were in control. And just two minutes later, when Marc Albrigthon hammered home Stewart Downing's low cross to put Villa ahead 2-0, it felt like the entire beginning of the season never even happened. This was the real Aston Villa. Not even Manchester United could match them when they played their game to the best of their ability.
Villa remained in control, brimming with confidence and looking for the goal that would put United to bed for good. It didn't come though, and when Francesco Macheda found a goal well against the run of play in the 81st minute it looked to be hang-on time for Villa. Macheda's goal was a wonderful piece of individual skill, gathering a lovely pass from Darren Fletcher just outside the box and hammering home an absolute screamer to bring United right back into things. The goal was purely the result pf Fletcher and Macheda doing well rather than any great failing on the part of Villa, but the impact on the psyche of the home side was readily apparent and it was dig-in-the-heels time. United put Villa's goal under siege, sending in dangerous ball after dangerous ball and threatening to level on numerous occasions. It ultimately came in the 85th minute, Vidic heading past a helpless Brad Friedel after a corner. Two goals, four minutes, neither the result of egregiously poor play from Villa. It took Manchester United 80 minutes to make their presence felt, but make it felt they did. The Red Devils continued their siege until the final whistle, though the best chance following the equalizer came when Nathan Delfouneso broke free on the counter and laid the ball back to a streaking Eric Lichaj only to put too heavy a touch on the ball to put it just out of reach of the right back-cum-right wing who looked to have done all the sprinting of which he was capable.
The whistle blew minutes later and Villa were left in an odd position, they deserved to be proud of their efforts and were truly the better side, but in the end a dramatic charge from United was enough to deny Villa the three points. I get the feeling I should have been crushed and angry and frustrated by the result, but it just wasn't in me. Villa didn't deserve to be in this game at all and yet they were the better team by a sight. I wanted Villa to win this game, and I was frustrated when they didn't. But given the circumstances surrounding this team and this season's increasingly apparent standing as a working experiment, it's difficult for me to be all that upset. We took a point from Manchester United and watched two of our youngest players continue to look like stars in the making. I'll take that every time.
- Marc Albrighton gets better and smarter with each game. Earlier this season that missed header would have signaled the end of his involvement as a meaningful part of the action; today he recovered with focused intensity.
- The youngsters playing well was a theme of the day, but it must be said that Jonathan Hogg did not have a great day. That's the bad news. The good news is that his errors appeared largely to be a result of his adjusting to the pace of the game and nervousness. He wasn't bad per se, just a kid.
- Gabriel Agbonlahor is not 100% in terms of fitness as his being subbed off attests to, but in terms skill he looked to be the same player. If there are any lingering effects from his injury they weren't readily apparent.
- There were three legitimate cases to be made for United players being sent off and each time I found myself shouting at the television. In hindsight though, none were clear-cut and the game was called fairly loose for the most part. Each could have been given but the fact that they weren't wasn't a real travesty.
Villa are in action again away to Blackburn Rovers next Sunday. This kind of effort should see off a team of that standing with relative ease, but that's the real test. Playing up to the level of a superior opponent is impressive, but asserting superior quality on an inferior opponent is essential.