Villa stroll eases the pressure for Moyes
Fletcher returns as Welbeck hits double to inspire United victory
DAVID MOYES walked slightly nervously towards the away dug-out for the first half, politely declining a request for an autograph from a lady in an Aston Villa beanie.
Aston Villa 0 Manchester Utd 3
Making the same touchline journey for the second period, Moyes was far more relaxed, signing that autograph and shaking hands, having watched his much-criticised Manchester United side dominate Villa, scoring twice through Danny Welbeck.
By the end, Moyes was really smiling, having seen more sublime passing from Wayne Rooney and having admired Tom Cleverley crown a hard-working display with a well-taken goal -- a moment that will do much for the midfielder's confidence.
Moyes knows he will face far more robust challenges than this from an anaemic Villa side but this Premier League victory, a first in five, still felt like a real tonic for the United manager.
The headlines will froth with less angst and abuse. The phone-in polemics will simmer down. Hysteria has left the building (for the time being).
Christmas now resembles a time of goodwill. United have West Ham United at home next followed by trips to Hull City and Norwich City.
They will certainly be buoyed by this visit to the Midlands. Other pluses included the performances of Antonio Valencia and Rafael, who linked well and crossed impressively; 48.1pc of United's moves came down the right compared to 25.7pc through the centre and 26.2pc via the left.
Darren Fletcher came on for his first game since St Stephen's Day 2012 after battling ulcerative colitis and his every touch was cheered by the United throng.
Phil Jones and Jonny Evans were rarely troubled at the back because Villa were so poor. As potential ambushes go, this proved more of a welcome mat.
Seven points from a possible 24 at home is an alarming return for Villa and the Holte End was admirably restrained at the final whistle.
Barring an enterprising opening 10 minutes when Marc Albrighton twice tested David de Gea, Paul Lambert's side were outclassed.
They lacked leadership on the field, ideas and defensive cohesion. Only Albrighton seemed prepared to take on the champions with the requisite levels of invention and poise.
Villa were again handicapped by Christian Benteke's loss of the swagger that made him such a potent force last season.
Benteke's goals helped keep Villa up and they urgently need him back in the old, muscular, defence-shredding routine to prevent any slide and also dispel any suggestion that the Belgian looks a transfer request waiting to happen.
Gabby Agbonlahor was briefly influential but otherwise cautioned, ruling him out of next Saturday's trip to Stoke City.
Experienced Villa observers voiced their frustration.
"I just despair at times,'' said their former striker, Dean Saunders, who was covering the game for radio.
"I know there's a difference in budget but I watch the strikers and (Gabby) Agbonlahor, Benteke and (sub Libor) Kozak have not put enough into it.''
Saunders was particularly annoyed by the lack of effort closing down opposing players.
"I remember when I was a kid and I didn't chase the goalkeeper and my youth coach sent me home for a week and told me not to bother coming back until he phoned me. As a striker you've got to run and they don't work hard enough."
Villa were outwitted in midfield. They lined up 4-3-3 but United coped easily with Karim El Ahmadi, Ashley Westwood and Yacouba Sylla in midfield because the exceptional Rooney constantly dropped back to help Cleverley and Ryan Giggs. They were either passed through or simply bypassed.
United's speed down the right brought Welbeck's brace.
With Robin van Persie out for a month and Javier Hernandez injured in training, Welbeck took his opportunity emphatically, starting on 15 minutes.
Rafael sent in a cross, rising towards Adnan Januzaj, whose header hit the post and rebounded across goal. Welbeck reacted quickest, volleying the ball in.
"We are staying up,'' came the laughing chant from the visiting fans, mocking reports of their demise.
Within three minutes, they were singing "champions" as United tore Villa's obliging defence apart again. Cleverley was gifted the ball by Nathan Baker in midfield.
This time Valencia delivered the ball in for the sliding Welbeck to double the visitors' lead. Villa were like their manager's jacket: too short at the back.
United were in command. Rooney and Welbeck shot just wide, while Januzaj embarked on a couple of dazzling runs before the interval.
So Moyes willingly stopped to meet local requests before resuming his position in the dug-out, celebrating a third goal within five minutes.
Cleverley exchanged passes with Rooney, whose return was exquisite. Struck with the outside of his right boot, Rooney delivered the ball behind Villa's defence for Cleverley to run on and shoot past Brad Guzan.
Villa were beaten. Matthew Lowton ploughed through Januzaj after 64 minutes and was fortunate that Lee Mason deemed it only a yellow card offence.
As well as Lowton, El Ahmadi and Westwood caught Januzaj. Each time, the teenager got up, making light of the fouls whereas more cynical players would stay down, inviting the referee to take stronger sanction with the perpetrators.
Januzaj and Giggs had been replaced by Ashley Young, who was booed by his former supporters in the Holte End, and Fletcher.
"Anybody who returns from an illness to play professional football on this kind of stage for a club like Manchester United shows a lot about the boy himself,'' said Moyes.
"He's had to be on his own, he's been in and out of hospital, had operations.
"Today was a big message to a lot of people: if you're not well then keep believing that you can get yourself right.
"More importantly, Darren came on and didn't look out of place. He stroked the ball about. I don't think he gave the ball away. He was really good.
"I don't want to put pressure on by saying 'that is Darren Fletcher back' because you just never know.
"It is definitely great for him because if you've been someone with maybe your career in jeopardy, to get back out there with the players and put the strip on and play is great.
"Actually he should have scored with a header and I told him that!''
The cloud over Moyes really had lifted. (© Daily Telegraph, London)