Man United 4 - 0 Aston Villa
LONDON - A Wayne Rooney brace helped Manchester United restore their five-point advantage at the top of the Premier League, the leaders strolling to a 4-0 victory over Aston Villa at Old Trafford.
City’s win at Norwich on Saturday had cut United’s lead over their neighbours to two points, with Roberto Mancini’s side extending their goal difference to 58 - eight better off than the champions.
The pressure was back on United, though an early Rooney penalty calmed any persisting nerves. Ashley Young twisted and turned his way into Villa’s penalty area and, having made contact with Ciaran Clark, the winger went to ground.
It was a theatrical reaction from the England midfielder but referee Mark Halsey pointed to the spot and Rooney stepped up to send Shay Given the wrong way.
Danny Welbeck extended the home side’s lead just before half-time, the striker profiting from slack defending to poke home Patrice Evra’s low cross.
The in-form Antonio Valencia set up Rooney for his second and United’s third, passing square across the box for Rooney to rifle in via a slight deflection off James Collins in the 73rd minute.
With Villa tiring and victory all but sealed, United broke once more and Nani squeezed a shot past Given at his near post to take United five points clear with four matches to go. Villa remain in trouble, six points clear of third-bottom Bolton, who also have a game in hand.
Much of the focus, though, was on Ashley Young, who was branded “a disgrace” by fellow Premier League player Ryan Taylor after winning his latest controversial penalty.
Seven days ago, the former Aston Villa man was at the centre of a diving row when he went down under minimal contact from Shaun Derry.
As the FA upheld Derry’s suspension, Young’s behaviour was excused, even if his reputation took a knock. Now there will be more questions about his willingness to bend the rules.
Newcastle’s Taylor led the chorus of disapproval, branding Young “an absolute disgrace” on Twitter, adding: “He’s the biggest cheat in the league. His antics are a joke.’’
The comment was hastily removed, although not before reaction had flashed around the world.
England legend Gary Lineker suggested Young could end up with an unwanted reputation if he keeps reacting in this way.
In an era where forwards tend to go down under the slightest contact, Young’s theatrical fall did come after he was touched by Ciaran Clark.
Not enough to tip the England man over, though, and the incident did Young little credit.
In the context of relieving the pressure in a title fight that has had new life injected into it by a combination of City finding their form again and United losing at Wigan, it was a present.
Rooney kept his nerve and sent Shay Given the wrong way. It was his 30th goal of the season and the 10th time he has scored against Given, now top of the list of his favourite keepers.
United dominated thereafter. Given’s reaction save denied Welbeck, recalled along with veteran midfielder Paul Scholes, who met two thunderous volleys perfectly.
Given kept out the first, the second whistled wide at astonishing speed.
Though clearly limited, Villa did enough to keep their band of supporters interested and both Clark and Stephen Ireland went close during rare counter-attacks.
United needed a second to calm any remaining nerves and Nathan Baker duly provided a gift shortly before the break.
In allowing Patrice Evra’s low cross to run under his leg at the far-post, Baker presumably thought the ball was heading out for a goal-kick. He was mistaken.
Instead, Welbeck slid in to nudge home from close range, his 11th goal of the season, but only his second since January.
It was a defensive lapse that has been so prominent in Villa’s season to date and clearly the finishing line cannot come soon enough.
They do have some tricky hurdles to negotiate yet, though, including a home encounter with Bolton, and the loss of Clark, who was groggily helped off after trying to continue following an accidental clash with Patrice Evra, did not help matters.