Macheda comes off the bench to rescue United

Published : Apr 11, 2009 00:00 IST

The contemporary United pride themselves on control more than daredevil football, yet improvisation had been essential on this occasion. With Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic and Paul Scholes suspended, Sir Alex Ferguson also had to cope with the absence through injury of Rio Ferdinand and Dimitar Berbatov. By Kevin McCarra.

The Premier League champions remained a step ahead by taking a long stride back into their past. This was the Manchester United of old, the side that can improvise in desperate circumstances. Sheer corniness is a rich resource for this club so perhaps we should merely shrug over the remarkable winner in the third minute of stoppage time. The debutant substitute Federico Macheda wheeled to bend a superb shot into the far corner of the net from the left of the penalty area.

HIS NAME WENT DOWN in United lore and it also entered the referee's book as Mike Riley cautioned the 17-yearold Italian for his celebrations. Far older men than Macheda would have lost self-control in that instant. The team, following defeats to Liverpool and Fulham, have a one-point advantage at the top of the table, with a game in hand. This, all the same, was anything but the resumption of normal service. Indeed, the afternoon was so peculiar that a pair of goals from Cristiano Ronaldo were hardly remarked upon at full-time.

THE CONTEMPORARY United pride themselves on control more than daredevil football, yet improvisation had been essential on this occasion. With Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic and Paul Scholes suspended, Sir Alex Ferguson also had to cope with the absence through injury of Rio Ferdinand and Dimitar Berbatov. Villa, for their part, came burdened by a recent decline that included a 5-0 rout at Liverpool, and their fight now seems to be for no more than a UEFA Cup place. Circumstances here seemed to be imploring them to re- vive. Carlos Tevez, having returned from Argentina's 6-1 drubbing at altitude in La Paz, was inevitably at a low ebb here. Not even Ferguson, for all his faith in youth, would have thought of beginning with Macheda or the other novice who ultimately had to be introduced, Danny Welbeck. A great deal of this match was forgettable, although the occasion will be recalled for years and decades to come.

There was no hiding the vulnerability of United from Martin O'Neill's squad, who were not disconcerted by the loss of a needless goal. James Milner rolled a passback but aimed it wide of the advancing Brad Friedel and the goalkeeper was compelled to reach to his left and handle. Ryan Giggs tapped the free-kick and Ronaldo struck a superb drive into the top corner.

THE ROUTE TO RECOVERY was clear for Villa. Gary Neville, who had been out of the first team with a groin injury since the end of January, was selected at centre-half initially to spare him being exposed to the pace of Ashley Young as a right-back. In the middle, however, the veteran could not command and John Carew was free to equalise with a header from Gareth Barry's cross. A slipshod United, with Patrice Evra and Jonny Evans culpable, had done little to stop the Villa captain from delivering the ball. For a while, it looked as if Villa would go on to impose themselves.

In the 58th minute, Stilian Petrov dispossessed Ronaldo and released Carew for the cross from the left that Gabriel Agbonlahor converted with a header at the far post. United seemed thwarted, but a low drive from Ronaldo after 80 minutes brought them level. It was a little disconcerting to witness the attempt reach the net since it had been aimed from outside the area and lacked force, but the accuracy was acute and Friedel could not get close to it.

The outcome was galling for Villa. O'Neill deplored the five minutes of additional team allowed by Riley, but United had not needed so many to win. The visiting manager had the exasperation of seeing his team unrewarded after rallying, in terms of performance if not outcome, following lacklustre weeks.

SOME STEPS WERE SENSIBLE and restored balance. Nicky Shorey, who has often been out of favour, was picked at left-back. That meant Luke Young could be stationed on the right and there was no need for the midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker to be used in defence, where he had suffered at Anfield. Elsewhere, Barry and Petrov dovetailed impressively. In attack, Carew imposed himself to such an extent that the absence of the injured Emile Heskey was forgotten. Beside him the swift Agbonlahor rediscovered the confidence that had been eluding him.

And yet it was all to no avail. Villa will think again about that harm it has done them to lose Martin Laursen to a knee injury. It was sustained in December and a comeback the following month was premature since there was a recurrence of the problem. The centre-back had hoped to return at Old Trafford and his leadership might have made all the difference when the team was carrying the 2-1 lead into the last 10 minutes of the contest.


April 4: Arsenal 2 (Adebayor 8 & 49) bt Manchester City 0. Half-time: 1-0; Blackburn 2 (McCarthy 82, Ooijer 89) bt Tottenham 1 (Keane pen-30). Half-time: 0-1; Bolton 4 (Davies 8, Cahill 44, Taylor 78, Gardner 84) bt Middlesbrough 1 (O’Neil 38). Half-time: 2-1; Fulham 0 lost to Liverpool 1 (Benayoun 90+2). Half-time: 0-0; Hull 0 drew with Portsmouth 0; Newcastle 0 lost to Chelsea 2 (Lampard 56, Malouda 65). Half-time: 0-0; West Brom 0 lost to Stoke 2 (Fuller 2, Beattie 49). Half-time: 0-1; West Ham 2 (Stanislas 42, Tomkins 53) bt Sunderland 0. Half-time: 1-0.

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