Manchester United closed to within a point of Chelsea at the summit of the Premier League following a battling draw at high-flying Aston Villa. But Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, dominant for long periods of a highly competitive match, had to do it the hard way after in-form Nani’s two-footed tackle earned the winger a red card.
With Chelsea losing at Everton, United missed the opportunity to regain the Premier League lead but Ferguson professed his pride in the Reds’ work rate, who played with 10 men for an hour against Martin O’Neil’s side. Indeed, United’s attacking philosophy and dominance against the Midlanders barely changed even after the red card.
But it was the home side who took the lead, largely against the run of play, with Spanish central defender Carlos Cuéllar heading over Edwin can der Sar and into the United net. The goal, fashioned by Stuart Downing’s inswinging cross, did nothing more than galvanise Ferguson’s players who have found a new belief in recent weeks.
Indeed the visitors were back in the match within three minutes after Nani created yet another goal in a recent run of fine form. The Portuguese winger crossed deep towards Giggs and the Welshman’s first-time volley cannoned in off compatriot James Collins for the tenth own goal United has benefited from this season.
In a breathless first half-hour Nani’s reckless tackle on Stilian Petrov brought red for the winger. The former-Sporting player’s lunging challenge left referee Peter Walton with little option in the current environment. Ferguson spoke of Nani’s new found maturity a little to early for this was the very definition of naïve.
Nani can count himself unlucky only insofar as he took the ball and not the man. Moreover, Walton’s inconsistency shone through – an hour later Ashley Young took man and not ball with a not dissimilar challenge with United awarded just a throw-in.
Nani will now miss fixtures against Everton, West Ham United and the Carling Cup final re-match with Villa, although it changed little tonight.
Rooney, bright as ever, brought a smart reaction from Brad Friedel in the Villa goal when set free by Giggs. United monopolised possession and Valencia in particular proved a more than adequate replacement for Nani on the right-wing, offering pace and penetration in abundance.
On the hour Rooney’s brilliant turn from the Welshman’s pass should have brought a second only for the former-Evertonian to shoot wildly over as United chased a winner Villa lacked the belief to find.
“Everyone on the pitch worked their socks off and played fantastic football,” Ferguson told Sky Sports in the aftermath.
“We should have won the game. I think we were the better team and with ten-men for certainly a long time – fair credit to the players they were absolutely brilliant.
“I think we had a good thrust in the second half, we just didn’t quite get the ball in. We wanted to win the match, that’s what this title is about.
“We’re in good form, the team. I think we’ve been very consistent tonight in terms of performance level.
But Ferguson – no fan of referees this term – found himself unable to defend Nani’s challenge and subsequent dismissal despite Walton’s inconsistent officialdom.
“It’s a red card – he’s gone in double footed and you can’t do that,” Frrguson added.
“It was a naïve tackle, he’s not a malicious player as we know but nonetheless it left the referee with no option.
“The funny thing is we felt (we should have got a foul) seconds before it when Gabriel Agbonlahor went in with his foot raised on Wes Brown.
“We didn’t get the foul, the ball goes into the direction where Nani tackles and I’m afraid it was a bad bit of luck for us.”
If that was unlucky then Chelsea’s 2-1 defeat at Everton handed United a major lifeline in a season of unpredictable results. Ferguson will hope that Giggs, who departed late on with a serious-looking arm injury, has similar fortune.