United's confidence flooding back ahead of meeting with 'noisy neighbours'
Man Utd 3 Aston Villa 1
This is an unusual Monday for Manchester United. For the first time this season - and only the second time since Alex Ferguson retired - the league table places them ahead of Manchester City.
Depending on City's result at Selhurst Park tonight, it could be the briefest of supremacies. But it is indicative of a changing mood around Old Trafford.
After five Premier League wins on the bounce, something approaching normality, it appears, is being restored.
"We have more confidence now," said Louis van Gaal of the run extended by this victory over an injury-weakened Aston Villa.
"Of course, it plays a part in the spirit of the players.
"Of our opponents also, but also our players. We have a lot of confidence and we haven't lost so many times at home."
Van Gaal articulated the key word. After scratching around in a variety of formations, bundling and bungling their way through fixtures, United now look a much more contented side, buoyed by a gathering swell of confidence.
Sure, there are still significant issues that need to be addressed. Not least in the way they allowed Villa briefly back into the game when Christian Benteke profited from absent marking and a rare goalkeeping mistake by David de Gea to score from Joe Cole's mis-hit corner. But the manner in which they stroked the ball around for much of the 90 minutes suggested that they are a team who are beginning to believe in themselves again.
It helps that Van Gaal is consistently picking a midfield who know how to pass a ball.
Even against such a busy presence as Villa captain Fabian Delph, United's central triangle of Michael Carrick, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera (right) enjoyed near total dominance.
At times their passing - Carrick's quarter-back prompting, Mata's deft flicks and flurries, Herrera's precise interventions - had the Old Trafford crowd purring.
This is a midfield that knows how to find the net, too. After Mata's brace at Liverpool last month, Herrera scored a couple here, his pair book-ending a glorious volley from Wayne Rooney.
And the Spaniard's goals - which took his season's total to seven - were significant in the manner of their execution.
His second was particularly noteworthy. Rooney vigorously dispossessed Delph following a drop ball, sped forward and flicked the ball wide to Mata, whose perfectly directed lay-off was drilled home by Herrera, arriving into the area with astute timing.
The result of neat build-up play executed at full gallop, this was a proper United goal.
"Positionally he is playing better than in the beginning, so he develops," said Van Gaal of Herrera.
"And he scores goals so it's very important. Because when you can score seven goals and you don't play regularly this season then how can you do better as a midfield player?"
It is a question that might be directed at Angel di Maria. Once again the Argentinian found himself on the bench, peripheral to the enterprise. He came on for the last 25 minutes, providing the cross which Rooney artfully controlled and then smashed past Brad Guzan into the net.
It was Di Maria's 10th assist of the season, but still it is hard to see how a place could be found for him in the starting XI for what is promising to be a most intriguing derby next Sunday.
When the City won the reverse fixture at the Etihad in November, the prospect that the two clubs might be vying for position come April seemed remote.
Now Van Gaal appeared bullish about the gathering chances of overtaking their neighbours on the final lap.
"It was another Manchester United I believe," he said of his first Mancunian dispute. "The confidence of our players is very high at the moment but also our performances show that it's not the same United."
As Van Gaal pointed out, United have to play Chelsea, Arsenal and City in their final seven games.
A few weeks ago, when United were grinding out results with unimaginative and quite often dull football, those fixtures would have been viewed with fear.
But after five successive league wins, United have their tails up and, if they play like they did in this match, they will fancy their chances of ending City's run of four successive Manchester derby wins when they the 'noisy neighbours' come to Old Trafford.
Other than Benteke's consolation, Villa offered little in attack and they are now in serious danger of being sucked back into the relegation zone.
Tim Sherwood will be looking for an immediate response tomorrow when his team host relegation rivals QPR, who hammered West Brom 4-1. (© Daily Telegraph, London)