THE INDIE - SCHOLES SHOWS HIS CLASS IS PERMANENT
It would be wrong to applaud Paul Scholes as if he was impeccable yesterday. His first pass dribbled into touch and his second rolled with unerring accuracy to an Aston Villa player. Then he produced a performance of such quality it is hard to imagine any midfielder in Europe bettering it.
Scholes is a simple man who eschews the Premiership's usual trappings and yesterday his game epitomised him. Long or short, his passing was uncomplicated but frequently incisive. Cristiano Ronaldo has been hailed as United's match-winner, but, in his quiet manner, Scholes has been just as important. In this game he shrugged off Villa as adroitly as he evades unwanted media attention.
Controlling the flow like a quarterback, most of the home attacks stemmed from his clever feet. Park Ji-sung, Michael Carrick, with his first goal since Sir Alex Ferguson signed him last summer, and Ronaldo were the scorers but Scholes was the architect of a victory that was United's 14th in 17 Premiership matches.
That keeps United six points clear at the top of the Premiership as they prepare to travel to Arsenal next week, while Villa, who got a goal back through Gabriel Agbonlahor, are making worrying progress towards the Premiership's perilous zone. They have not won for 11 matches since beating Everton on 11 November. Yesterday, in the first half particularly, they were simply outclassed.
"There was a good precision and pace to our passing," Ferguson said. "We missed a few chances but it's not something we're worrying about because we have a lot of goalscorers." On Scholes, his tongue was in his cheek. "When he gets some composure he'll be all right." Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, was more expressive: "Majestic, wonderful."
Composure? If Scholes had been more relaxed he would have been asleep. His early errors were range finders and from then he propelled the ball around Old Trafford as if it was radar guided. One beautifully flighted sweep gave Gary Neville time to cross after five minutes and Henrik Larsson's header was denied only by an athletic save to his right by Thomas Sorensen.
Five minutes later Scholes delivered identically and this time Park was the beneficiary of Neville's curled pass from the right. His first attempt was blocked but when Gary Cahill's insipid clearance came back to the South Korean he drilled in a low shot.
United's pace and movement were ripping Villa to shreds and in the 13th minute they went 2-0 ahead. Scholes again was the instigator, chipping ahead for Carrick to slip his marker. United's £18.6 million midfielder spread Villa's defence further with a pass to the right flank to Park, who drew his full-back and slipped the ball inside for Carrick to drive past Sorensen.
Where was Ronaldo in all this? Lost in a blur of over-complication, but at his most showy he is always likely to burst into relevance and he got United's third after 35 minutes. Gavin McCann lost possession to Park when he should have cleared. Carrick pounced on this sloppiness and curled an impeccable cross for Ronaldo to head in at the far post.
THE OBSERVER - VILLA CRUMBLE IN FACE OF THIS UNITED FRONT
One crumbling empire, there's only one crumbling empire.
Sad to report, the Stretford End were not singing that as Manchester United won with embarrassing ease, though they might like to consider it while this sort of champagne football is providing such an attractive counterpoint to the meltdown at Chelsea.
As Sir Alex Ferguson has said on several occasions, talk of the Old Trafford empire crumbling is so last season, like England reaching a World Cup final and Jose Mourinho fancying Andriy Shevchenko. The only thing crumbling here was the Aston Villa defence, though they will not be the only side to struggle to cope with United's attacking options.
'We were two goals behind before we could think,' Martin O'Neill said, despondent at a winless run now stretching to 12 matches. 'We were hoping to stay in the game for longer than that, but United are a fine side at the top of their game and we are not. We let them get in rather easily.'
Ferguson paid tribute to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's finishing and spoke highly of the partnership that the fit-again Louis Saha has forged with Wayne Rooney. Nevertheless, he went with Henrik Larsson, breaker of the deadlock against Villa in the Cup last weekend, and only a fine reaction save from Thomas Sorensen prevented the Swede opening the scoring after four minutes when he got his head to Gary Neville's cross.
That was the first indication the game was not going to be anything like as tight as the Cup tie. The second and third arrived in the 10th and 12th minutes and gave the lie to Ferguson's generous assertion that Villa are a hard-working team who always put up a fight. Neville's next cross led to the first goal, when Gary Cahill's dismal attempt to clear the danger simply invited Park Ji-Sung to score at the second attempt. Two minutes later Sorensen was beaten again from similar distance, when Michael Carrick played a leisurely one-two with Park down the right and strolled into the area unopposed to score his first United goal.
The only danger after that was that United might fall asleep or die of boredom, and they certainly lost concentration on a few occasions before half time. Carrick, Paul Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo were all guilty of dozily surrendering possession to allow Villa to set up counter-attacks, though since the visitors' only attacking idea was to hoof the ball forward for Gabriel Agbonlahor to chase, United did not have that much to worry about. Agbonlahor undoubtedly has pace, but Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are no slouches either and the only time the 20-year-old was granted a clear sight of goal he shot straight at Edwin van der Sar.
SUNDAY TIMES - FLUID LARSSON RIPS VILLA APART
Sir Alex Ferguson is so enamoured with Henrik Larsson he says he enjoys watching the striker "even in training". Here he could feast his eyes upon the Swede in what was virtually a practice match. The Aston Villa fans made sarcastic shushing noises to reflect the quiet nature of yet another record crowd at Old Trafford, but it was an empty taunt. On the pitch, their own players made so very little noise in this match.
United, three goals ahead by the 35th minute, could clock off early and idle, conserving energies for the different test versus Arsenal next week. Everything was routine — except the goal getters. Cristiano Ronaldo can almost be guaranteed to strike every time he plays but despite another clever performance, Larsson did not join him on the scoresheet and nor did a frustrated Wayne Rooney who, not for the first time this season, found himself doing the right things but with timing that was not quite right.
Instead Ji-Sung Park claimed his first goal of the season and Michael Carrick of his Manchester United career. A total of 14 different players have now scored for United in the Premiership with only Gary Neville, of the first choice outfielders, yet to beat an opposing goalkeeper. While Chelsea are reliant on Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, Ferguson has reserves of goal power. "That was another one off the list of games left. We now have
15 remaining and we've got to go to London next week and do our job," Ferguson said.
Larsson has been such an immediate hit with the manager he was preferred to a fit again Louis Saha and forced Thomas Sorensen to execute an awkward, one-handed save with a header after just five minutes. But it was Larsson's off-the-ball work which proved significant in the torturing of Villa. Through his movement, positioning, and timing of runs, Larsson can occupy an entire backline and his efforts ensured Rooney, Ronaldo and Park enjoyed freedom. United could attack from wide and deep and Martin O'Neill's containment strategy was quickly shredded.
He had placed Aaron Hughes in advance of the centre backs like a catenaccio of old, but full-backs Wilfred Bouma and Olof Mellberg lacked the mobility to stem Park and Ronaldo, and Hughes lay too deep to affect midfield. Paul Scholes and Carrick often had so much time to weigh passing options they resembled retired gentlemen lingering over selections in a second-hand book shop.
After 10 minutes Scholes spooned a through-pass onto the chest of Larsson, who went down after contact from Bouma. Had Park played to the whistle he could have turned the loose ball into an unguarded net.
His tendency to go to pieces in the box has undermined his United career but, for once, his nerve remained intact after Hughes and Liam Ridgewell dealt poorly with a Neville cross. Park pounced and shot, the two defenders blocked, Gary Cahill miscontrolled the ricochet and sliced his clearance. Park had the ball once more and this time drove it past Sorensen. It was only his second Premiership strike.
SUNDAY TELEGRAPH - SCHOLES TAKES CONTROL AS VILLA MEEKLY CRUMBLE
Paul Scholes missed much of last season with an eye problem and, according to his Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, his view of things is still blurred. But after another supreme demonstration of the midfield arts, Scholes showed that he clearly still possesses 20-20 football vision.
With United in flowing form and comfortably defending their six-point lead at the top of the Premiership while Chelsea are beset by problems off the field, Ferguson has not had more reasons to chuckle since Arsene Wenger's Arsenal blew the 2003 Premiership title.
The only thing that brings a scowl to his features at present is Bayern Munich's refusal to sell Owen Hargreaves to him. Yet, while there is no such thing as an embarrassment of riches, where on earth would Hargreaves fit into the team?
Michael Carrick, bought to fill the senior midfield role, is finally blossoming into the sort of player worthy of such elevated status at Old Trafford, riding tandem with Scholes and embellishing this performance with his first goal for the club. But it was Scholes himself, the man playing in Hargreaves' holding position, who was the orchestrator-in-chief.
As Scholes offered a masterclass in how to control a game from midfield, reading the play so expertly that he was continually able to win the ball and dispatch it to a colleague in one fluid movement, it was easy to understand the frustration of England manager Steve McClaren, all of whose efforts to lure him back into the England flock have been rebuffed.