It’s a cruel game, football. Once again Villa build an impressive lead against Manchester United only to see it all slip away at the end.
But if we wanted to know what Paul Lambert’s about, Villa’s first-half performance showed it admirably. Sticking with the same lineup and setup that got the win against the Black Cats last weekend (with Enda Stevens the only change due to Joe Bennett’s injury and Eric Lichaj’s yellows), Villa were disciplined, hard-working and opportunistic.
While Manchester United dominated possession, it was Villa who had the better chances. Ron Vlaar was absolutely immense, defending and starting attacks. Lowton and Stevens were composed and astute. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie were frustrated, largely because they weren’t getting service from wide men Young and Valencia.
Again, Westwood and Bannan did the work.
And Christian Benteke was a man amongst boys. Putting Smalling to the floor with an authoritative shoulder he crossed perfectly for Andreas Weimann, whose hard work was finally rewarded as he struck first time and drilled the ball past De Gea, putting Villa deservedly ahead just before the stroke of halftime.
A young team frustrating, slowing down and shutting out the league leaders and taking a lead into halftime. That was a good half of football, played just exactly the way Villa would’ve wanted. And Villa could well have been ahead earlier when Stephen Ireland caught Scholes in possession just outside the United box and put Benteke in alone, only to have United bailed out by the “foul” on Scholes. This would come back to haunt Villa later.
Chicharito came on to start the second half, replacing Young, and Rooney went out wider left, and Villa were under more pressure.
Then a Benteke dummy, a flick from Ireland, and penetrating run from Gabby, and another first-time finish from Andreas Weimann saw Villa head 2-0. Again, deservedly so. The Villa Park faithful were in full throat.
By 55 minutes, United looked frustrated and out of ideas.
Then Javier Hernandez scored out of nowhere in the 58th minute and changed it all. In a mark of how cruel football can be, his poor first touch on a long ball that saw him making a run behind Clark allowed him to actually retain possession, keep it from Guzan—who would likely have smothered it had the touch gone in front the way it was intended—and dig it from his feet to slide it under him.
It all went wrong after United had their lifeline and way back into the game. Hernandez scored again a few minutes later at 63 minutes, a ball going wide across goal deflecting off the unfortunate Vlaar and past Guzan for 2-2 (it would later be ruled an own goal). The game was wide open now, and a treat for neutrals, even if it was depressingly familiar for Villans.
The chances were there for either side: van Persie hit the crossbar twice within a minute, and Weimann was denied a hat-trick off a point-blank header by a reflex save from De Gea. Benteke was in, and Smalling got a crucial block.
Villa kept fighting, but a rather weak call against substitute Karim El Ahmadi gave Robin van Persie a chance to put a very good ball in the box, and what do you know, Hernandez beat Enda Stevens to it to glance it past Guzan for a 3-2 lead at 87 minutes.
And again Villa kept fighting, and it wouldn’t have been at all surprising to see them claim a third.
But it wasn’t to be, and instead we got another gut-wrenching loss to United after leading.
If anything, Villa scored too early, giving United time to wind into gear. And SAF did get his substitutions right, Chicharito changing the game when no one else in a United shirt looked capable of doing it to that point.
Even though United are clearly a more talented and experienced side, I think Villa can feel disappointed about not coming out with at least a draw. It was a good performance, and there was a lot to be happy about.
Yes, it was crushing in the end. But Villa went out, scored good goals, far better than United’s, gave it a good go, and got undone in the end by some bad luck, a bit of quality, and that ingrained self-belief a side like United have. The young Villa side will learn from this, and they’ll know they could quite easily have had more out of the game.