For the home side, the team selection was an injury-enforced decision for Gerard Houllier. With Marc Albrighton already a fixture in the midfield, it was time for the other young guns to make a name for themselves. In celebration of his call up to the Scottish national squad, 20-year-old Barry Bannan was bustling around in central midfield along with the diminutive yet combative figure of 21-year-old Jonathan Hogg.
It seems odd to think Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor are considered seasoned veterans in the light of Houllier’s younger charges, but as part of a dynamic attacking unit, marshaled by the relatively ancient 26-year-old Stewart Downing, Villa were active form the start. Manchester United’s squad had a greater degree of experience, but with the zippy Javier Hernandez leading the line with Dimitar Berbatov, they had a youthful zest.
Unsurprisingly, the first half began cagily as the two teams got used to each other, but United were looking the slightly more composed. It was the former champions who created the only clear-cut chance of the half. A darting run by Hernandez drew Villa’s central defenders James Collins and Richard Dunne towards him, leaving Berbatov unmarked. The Mexican toe-poked a pass through to the Bulgarian, and despite calls for offside the flag stayed down. Berbatov, who has suffered a lean spell of late, was one-on-one with American goalkeeper Brad Friedel, but dragged his left-foot shot horribly wide. It was a statement of his fragile confidence at the moment.
For the rest of the half, it was a case of semi-chances and sniffs at goal. Villa were having the more joyful time and in consecutive minutes in the closing stages, could have scored twice. A long ball was beautifully controlled by Stewart Downing, whose touch took it away from a defender. His right foot shot took a deflection and with Edwin Van der Sar beaten, the ball slid past the post. From the resulting corner, Richard Dunne found himself completely free but could only plant a weak header into the floor and then the grateful arms of the United keeper.
The second period began in the same vein with Villa looking ever more likely to break the deadlock. On 53 minutes, the home team had their best opportunity. Stewart Downing, bent a delicious cross in from the left wing. It bamboozled Patrice Evra who looked all at sea as Albrighton stole around the back of him. The young winner did the right thing by cushioning a header across Van der Sar, but watched his effort go agonizingly past the post.
United were getting rattled, especially Nani who was being harangued by the crowd and nullified by Villa’s organized midfield and defense. After a number of niggling challenges the Portuguese was booked for throwing an arm across Stephen Warnock’s face. After Luke Young returned the favor by hobbling Nani, Hernandez let the heat get to him and a rash challenge on Albrighton put him in the book.
Villa were looking more like potential champions than United and on 66 minutes came closest to scoring. Another glorious ball by Downing picked out James Collins and his bullet header ricocheted off the bar with Van der Sar totally beaten. A minute later it was the post that saved United. Again good work on the left threaded a ball through to Ashley Young, he couldn’t control and Agbonlahor, following up, hit a shot against the woodwork.
It was no surprise that Villa’s pressure finally paid off. A great ball down the right allowed Agbonlahor to stretch his legs against Nemanja Vidic. The Englishman beat the defender to the ball and managed to squirt a cross into the box. As Ashley Young advanced, he was bundled over by Wes Brown. It was a clear penalty and Brown was lucky not to be dismissed. After all the dominance the situation commanded a cool head and Ashley Young provided that, slotting the penalty past Van der Sar.
It was the wake-up call for the match. Suddenly the game was stretched beyond recognition. For Villa, it was a blessing because they doubled their lead with the best move of the match and possibly the season, so far. Federico Macheda, who had just come on for the ineffective Berbatov, lost the ball in Villa’s half and the home team broke through Ashley Young. His run took him to the edge of the area, before he helped the ball on to the overlapping Downing. His ball across the box was inch perfect, and with United’s defense stretched, Marc Albrighton finally took his chance and planted his shot into the back of the net. It was only what Villa deserved.
This seemed to kick United into life for the first time in the match. After a spell of constant pressure, Darren Fletched picked the ball up on the edge of the area. A fantastic piece of skill delivered the ball into the path of Macheda, who made up for his part in Villa’s second goal, by rifling a shot into the roof of the net.
Villa were shell-shocked, and like true champions, United sensed their weakness. Eventually, this pressure told. A ball over from the left, from the otherwise quiet Nani, found Nemanja Vidic at the back post, and he directed his header across Friedel for the equalizer.
American defender Eric Lichaj made a late cameo, coming in on the right of midfield for Albrighton, and did well to help settle Villa down as United pushed for a late winner. The youngster even showed a flash of pace as he broke down the right looking to find a winner for the home side, but Nathan Delfouneso's pass was nowhere near good enough to lead to a moment of danger.
It had been a bedlam fifteen minutes with four goals and end-to-end football. With both teams believing they could nick the game, the closing stages were as frenzied as the preceding quarter of an hour. Neither team however, could break the deadlock, and as Mike Dean blew his whistle, both teams can look back with pride at their hand in what was a thrilling game.
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