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The Red Devils claimed a convincing 4-0 win over Aston Villa, aided by a controversial penalty for a foul on Ashley Young, to keep their neighbours at bay in the title race

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By Mark Fordham at Old Trafford

This time last week everyone, quite rightly, thought the Premier League title race was all over bar the shouting after Manchester City were undone by Arsenal.

But Wigan stunned Manchester United in midweek and two consecutive City wins meant the gap between the bitter rivals was just two points leading into United’s game against Aston Villa.

Roberto Mancini claimed the title was still over despite the 6-1 drubbing of Norwich City on Saturday but everyone knew it was not up, none more so than Sir Alex Ferguson who was keen for his team to show they had what it takes to live up to the pressure of once again being title favourites.

BACK IN THE GROOVE
PLAYER RATING | ROONEY

7.5
Scored the opening goal for his 15th penalty for United but cut an increasingly frustrated figure before scoring the third towards the end of the game.
PLAYER RATING | WELBECK

7.0
Has formed a very good partnership up front with Rooney, so much so that he has been preferred to Chicharito, which is some statement. Three goals on the day between the pair is testament to the burgeoning relationship.
 PLAYER RATING | SCHOLES

7.0
Was the heartbeat of the United team as he has been so often since his return to the team in January. A true class act.

And live up to it they did with a convincing 4-0 victory over a pretty abject Aston Villa, who themselves are in a fight for their lives as they attempt to avoid relegation.

It could have been very different for Alex McLeish’s men, though, had Mark Halsey not given a controversial penalty in the opening minutes.

The referee adjudged Ciaran Clark to have brought down Ashley Young, but on closer inspection, as had been the case with the sending off of Shaun Derry against QPR last weekend, it appeared that the England star made the most of minimal contact.

In the build-up to the game McLeish seemed to warn his defenders about the talent that Young has at winning penalties. It was not exactly baseless, either, as the penalty he was awarded in the first half of the game against Villa was the eighth he has won since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, twice as many as anyone else.

It may steal the headlines from the victory as it is the second time in as many home games that this has happened in an incident involving Young but it should not detract from an efficient performance that puts United firmly in the driving seat for the Premier League title.

This stage of the season, as Sir Alex has coined on many occasions, is squeaky bum time but you would have never known it from the Red Devils’ performance on Sunday.

United could have come out anxiously against Villa after City had put the pressure on their rivals to close the gap to two points but instead were led from the front by the players that have been at the forefront of their revival since the turn of the year.

They have managed to win 12 Premier League games in the last 14 matches and it is no surprise that this has coincided with the reintroduction of Paul Scholes.

Scholes has been magnificent since he returned to the team, giving the United side an impetus that had been missed for most of the season before that, which could be blamed on injuries to the likes of Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley.

PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE WITH FOUR GAMES TO GO

  P W D L F A GD Pts
Manchester Utd 34 26 4 4 82 28 +54 82
Manchester City 34 24 5 5 85 27 +58 77

The midfield maestro has built a brilliant partnership with the previously maligned Michael Carrick to give a solidity through the backbone of the team.

This partnership, along with other burgeoning pairings throughout the squad have made them an irresistible force for much of the second half of the season.

One such partnership is that of Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand who have turned themselves into one of the most impressive central defensive pairings in the league.

The improvement Evans has made even led Ferguson to suggest that he was one of the best defenders in the country, which is a far cry from the derision he received from some quarters after some questionable performances last season.

Yesterday’s performance leaves United in the driving seat for the Premier League even though Sir Alex won’t allow his team to start thinking that is the case.

He told Sky Sports: "There could yet be twists and turns, we just need to keep enjoying ourselves and keep playing alright and picking up points.

"We won’t be getting too confident, as my experience tells you that there is always something that can come back and bite you on the bum!

"We'll just keep earning points, and that’s all we can do."

If United keep up the same performance levels as they did against Villa then you can certainly bet that they will be earning those points.

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