What difference a single game can make. Against Wigan just days earlier, the knives were immediately pulled out on Manchester United and their chances of taking home a record 20th Premier League title. The pressure of the run-in was finally getting to them, said the doomsayers. Wigan, struggling to avoid relegation to the Championship, bossed the game and United’s star players had an off night, not least their talisman Wayne Rooney. The title race, it seemed, still had few more twists in store.
Playing at home to Aston Villa, United was facing even more pressure. Manchester City had put together some exquisite football the day before, tearing six goals past Norwich City, who were powerless to stop the Argentinean pairing of Tevez and Aguero adding to the end of season highlight reel with some superb goals.
The Red Devils’ fans need not have worried. With the midfield and strikers looking lively again, United returned to the fast, fluent passing football that has helped them chase down and then overtake City’s lead at the top of the table.
They were, admittedly, helped with some fortuitous refereeing decisions and calamitous Villa defence. Ashley Young tumbled far too easily inside the Villa box after brushing (at best) Ciaran Clark, the opposing defender. Even Sir Alex Ferguson believed as much in his post-game press conference, saying that it was a “dramatic fall”, and that Young had “played for the penalty”. So much, then, for this misguided theory that diving is simply a disease on the English game brought on by conniving foreign players.
So, Villa had what looked a genuine grievance with Martin Atkinson for awarding the penalty that Wayne Rooney coolly tucked into the bottom right corner. But they only had themselves to blame for the second goal of the match, the killer, which locked in three points for the home side. After Patrice Evra played an inauspicious cross from the left field into the box, Aston Villa’s central defenders turned to gormless spectators and watched the ball roll by, with Danny Welbeck taking advantage and easing it into the back of the net. The second half, containing another Rooney goal and a fourth from Nani was a procession.
United now sit at the top of the table, five points in front of City with four games to play – a position any side would have taken when the season kicked off back in August. The fact is that, after their barnstorming start, the football that Manchester City produced in beating Norwich has become all too rare (particularly away from home) to keep their cross-town rivals behind in the title race.
For United, meanwhile, the air of inevitability that accompanied their win is a sure sign of a champion side, and they are now almost at the stage where they can afford to lose to City at the Etihad on April 30 and still bring home the league title. Their other three remaining fixtures, against Everton (home), Swansea (home) and Sunderland (away) will certainly provide challenges; but the feeling exuding from Old Trafford is that, having taken stock of the poor Wigan performance, Ferguson’s side is now ready – almost – to start celebrating and making more noise even than those of their neighbours.