Manchester United, maestros of the helter-skelter comeback, produced another concerted late show to take all three points from a match they were losing 2-0 after 48 minutes. Not just behind, but effectively smothered by a well-organised and energetic Aston Villa, this had looked to be a bridge too far for United, limp in the first half but energised by a switch to a 4-2-4 formation after the break. In the end it was Javier Hernández, a half-time substitute, who made all the difference, energising United’s front line, scoring twice and forcing the own goal that levelled the scores.
If there is a journey United tend to make in expectation rather than hope then this is probably it: United’s 16-match unbeaten record at Villa Park before Saturday was already out on its own as a Premier League record for travelling invincibility. Never mind that United arrived to face a Villa team in the throes of a cautious revival, three matches unbeaten after a difficult start under Paul Lambert, this was a match that United, with games against Norwich, QPR, West Ham and Reading to come in the next three weeks, will have seen as the start of an extended running jump at December’s Manchester derby.
It was perhaps understandable that, with Villa’s midfield in the hands of the callow Barry Bannan and Ashley Westwood, and with Lambert giving the Irish left-back Enda Stevens his first start – tasked here with plugging a potent United right flank in the shape of Rafael da Silva and Antonio Valencia – there was a vague sense of fatalism in some quarters around Villa Park.
Villa started brightly, though, in front a boisterous early evening full house, Lambert’s midfield dropping off as Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes controlled possession for United and then playing with some thrust on the counterattack. Villa created the first chance after eight minutes, Rio Ferdinand heading narrowly wide of his own goal from Stephen Ireland’s whipped set piece from the right-hand side.
With Chris Smalling returning to United’s defence alongside Ferdinand, there were some early suggestions of porousness, not least after 15 minutes when Ireland and Andreas Weimann broke quickly, the Irishman playing in Christian Benteke behind Patrice Evra, only for Ferdinand to block his shot.
With Ireland detailed to snap at Scholes whenever he received the ball and at times disrupting those deep midfield rhythms, Villa managed to get to the half-hour mark without coming under any sustained pressure, with United’s attempts on goal restricted to a single early Carrick header from a corner.
Ireland continued to float with purpose, shooting powerfully wide from 25 yards as Villa again stole the ball in their own half and pressed forward. With Bannan increasingly perky in the centre of the pitch, Villa took a narrowly deserved lead on half-time. It was a moment Smalling will want to forget. Twice beaten by Benteke on the left touchline, the second time an attempted shoulder charge near the byline that left the England centre-back on the turf, Smalling could only watch as Benteke played a cute cutback for Weimann to shoot emphatically past David de Gea. It was a lovely finish from the 21-year-old Austrian, his fourth goal for Villa since signing from Rapid Vienna. United emerged reconfigured after half-time, with Hernández on in place of Ashley Young, who had been anonymous apart from the Villa boos, and Wayne Rooney employed as a left-winger.
No matter: the second goal arrived after three minutes of the half and it was brutally simple in its execution. Ireland’s fine diagonal pass found Gabriel Agbonlahor in space behind Rafael. His ball across the box was low and hard and Weimann was there again unmarked to smash it home from six yards. United, for all their nice measured passing had been exposed twice by swift attacks that seemed to betray a sense of defensive slackness, with Ferdinand culpable for the second.
The grandstanding comeback has been a theme of United’s season and there was a sense of inevitability about what came next. First Hernández pulled one back on 58 minutes, displaying the value of his speed and movement as Villa’s high defensive line was caught out by a lovely flighted pass over the top by Scholes. Hernandez held off Ciaran Clark, rearranged his feet and slotted the ball through Brad Guzan’s legs. Within four minutes it was 2-2 as United finally breached Villa’s left flank. It was another lovely pass from Scholes inside Stevens for Rafael. His cross was volleyed back across goal by Hernández and the ball deflected in off Ron Vlaar for an own goal.
Having sat back before the goals Villa pushed forward, almost scoring again as Weimann, on a hat-trick, drew a brilliant save from De Gea with a header from Bannan’s cross. Having played his part in both United’s goals, Scholes was replaced by Tom Cleverley on 70 minutes, just as Robin van Persie, hitherto more or less invisible, headed Rooney’s corner against the crossbar from three yards out. With the woodwork still rattling the Dutchman struck the bar again 30 seconds later, this time with a brilliant, dipping left-foot shot, having cut inside from Villa’s right rather too easily.
By now the game had dissolved into a furious exchange of attacks, with United repeatedly pressing through their fluid four-man frontline, albeit with Rooney limping a little after a strong but fair challenge by Matthew Lowton. He left the pitch on 78 minutes, replaced by Anderson. Roy Hodgson will have experienced a familiar sinking feeling, watching a third of his selected England strike force leave the pitch before the trip to Sweden.
With United pressing relentlessly down the flanks, there was a sense that the winner was coming and it arrived with four minutes left. Van Persie’s deep free-kick was met in the penalty area by Hernández, twisting to head the ball past Guzan and into the corner.
At the final whistle United’s players all ran to Hernández – it had been an act of escapology, led by the Mexican.