Nani turns villain as United held
Aston Villa 1
Man United 1
HAVING of late looked like a man who wanted to be Wayne Rooney's heroic side-kick in an epic title challenge, Nani last night turned villain -- against the Villans.
A ghastly two-footed challenge by the Portuguese winger meant the champions had to cope for over an hour with 10 men. The player in the banana-coloured boots slipped up. Rooney? He was, again, wonderful.
And so United earned a draw, although they deserved more, with Chelsea's result making this an even more precious point. For Villa this was a gifted chance to get back on track for the top four. It went, for them, maddeningly unexploited. Their depleted opponents had more shots, more corners and more resolve.
United have been 'in the zone' of late, confidence soaring, but were soon knocked out of it. Villa matched up in the midfield. Five strung across the middle of the pitch, it meant space was at a premium, although there was always the variability of human error and so, when Wes Brown failed to clear, Stewart Downing had the opportunity to sweep a low shot across the area.
It served as an unheeded warning. Again Villa, emboldened, came forward and this time Downing was more precise, curling in a cross from the right, which was flicked on by Carlos Cuellar towards Richard Dunne but Rafael poked out a leg and blocked. Unfortunately for United his clearance fell to Cuellar, who cleverly arced a header over Edwin Van Der Sar from 12 yards.
Given that Villa had committed two defenders into the United penalty area for a counter-attack, their boldness had been rewarded.
How would United react? They equalised. Nani, until then an ineffective gadfly, crossed deep towards Ryan Giggs, who volleyed dangerously into the six-yard area. It was probably going wide but, with Paul Scholes hovering, the ball cannoned off James Collins' legs and into the net. Barely four minutes had elapsed between the strikes and Villa, who had gone more than five hours without scoring a goal at home, had also now had their impressive defence breached.
Nevertheless, Villa's defence was comparatively solid as United's continued to wobble, with neither Jonny Evans nor Wes Brown convincing. It was all set up, but just as the contest was starting to develop, Nani intervened again.
It wasn't the kind of intervention to be savoured for, as the ball ran away from him, he launched into a clueless, stupid challenge on Stiliyan Petrov.
It wasn't malicious, just plain dumb from a player who had already demonstrated he couldn't tackle. Referee Peter Walton produced the red card. No debate.
United were, understandably, rocked. Suddenly penned back, they broke out, with Michael Carrick forcing a fine tip-over from Brad Friedel with a fierce drive and then Darren Fletcher flicking the ball onto the roof of the net.
However, Brown's failure to deal with Gabriel Agbonlahor was turning into a pressure point and the defender was given a warning by Walton after, again, wrestling the Villa striker to the ground, although Villa created little.
Nani's departure had placed even more of the responsibility for United's attack on Rooney. Always full of threat and menace, he did, however, appear isolated, although Friedel had to hurtle from goal to clear as the striker, following a determined run, appeared set to latch onto Ryan Giggs' slid pass.
Villa were struggling to press their one-man advantage. Instead, it was United who pushed and substitute Antonio Valencia should have done better than shooting wide from Giggs' cross. Moments later, Rooney was crowded out as he attempted to pull the trigger from Carrick's centre before finally Villa fashioned a chance and Van der Sar held onto James Milner's low drive.
United lost Giggs with an arm injury, but Rooney was coming into his own. He fired past one of Friedel's posts and then, even closer, past the other. By now Rooney was revved up and held off Collins and Dunne before forcing Friedel to palm over his dipping shot. The 10 men were making all the running, with Villa struggling to gain a foot-hold.
In added time, though, Cuellar swung in a free-kick, Dunne stretched out a boot, but just failed to guide the ball past Van der Sar. (© Daily Telegraph, London)