Last updated : 24 December 2006 By Ed


The day before Tampa Bay take on Cleveland in the NFL, Malcolm Glazer's Manchester United buccaneers had much the better of Randy Lerner's Aston Villa browns - sorry, clarets - in the Premiership's equivalent fixture, scoring three times in the second half to run away with the points. What would Glazer's struggling American outfit not give for the equivalent of a Cristiano Ronaldo? Unloved and abused throughout the land, the young Portuguese maestro was again the outstanding figure as United shrugged off last weekend's unlucky defeat at West Ham to ensure that they will lead the table over Christmas.

The marathon that is the Premiership has now reached the halfway stage, and United are striding confidently with only Chelsea still in touch. Sir Alex Ferguson, thrilled by his team's performance after the interval, could not resist a jibe at Jose Mourinho: "That just proves we shouldn't listen too much to Jose. He said we wouldn't be top at Christmas. He had to apologise for lying about an Everton player in midweek. Perhaps he should be apologising again."

Oddly, the top two play three of the same teams over the so-called holiday period; Chelsea can only hope that when they follow United to Villa Park on Tuesday week, Martin O'Neill's side have still not recovered their early-season vim. Seven games without a win, they have fallen to their lowest position of the whole campaign and badly need to flash some of Mr Lerner's cash in the transfer window.

Youngsters such as Gabriel Agbonlahor, preferred to both Milan Baros and Juan Pablo Angel, are running out of steam. Villa could also do with Ronaldo being absent for their two visits to Old Trafford in January.

Pitch appearances before the game by Cyrille Regis and the 1981 championship-winning manager, Ron Saunders - who had not been back since - were a reminder of the days when Villa used to beat yesterday's visitors on a more regular basis. They have not done so since the opening day of the 1995-96 season. Since then United's favourite ground outside Manchester had yielded 11 wins (four in FA Cup semi-finals) and three draws.

The single moment that brought a full-throated roar from a sold-out Villa Park came in the 12th minute as Chris Sutton nodded on Gareth Barry's free-kick for the 20-year-old debutant Craig Gardner, whose header struck a post. If United did not come quite that close to a goal before half-time, they required the home defence to be on a state of fairly constant alert.

Gabor Kiraly was nevertheless required to make only one save, when Ronaldo headed Ryan Giggs's corner straight at him. Ronaldo and Park Ji-Sung wasted the first half-chance after the interval by over-elaboration inside the penalty area, but at least the Portuguese is becoming more self-aware. Conscious that it was not the first occasion on which he had been guilty of over-indulgence, he took the more direct route and a goal resulted. Giggs, on the halfway line, sent him away to sprint at three defenders, one of whom, Gary Cahill, managed to block the first shot but, like Kiraly, could not prevent Ronaldo's fierce follow-up flying into the net for the 2,000th United goal under Ferguson.

Six minutes later Ronaldo returned the favour with another glorious run down the left and a cut-back for Giggs, whose shot was deflected by Cahill for a corner. Giggs took it, Gavin McCann headed out and watched, as awestruck as the rest of the stadium as Paul Scholes hit a magnificent volley in off the crossbar from 25 yards.

It was not the ideal time to see Rooney coming on against you, as he set up Ronaldo for what might easily have been a third goal, Kiraly this time managing to get down and make the save. The same combination pulled Villa apart again eight minutes from time, Ronaldo tapping in Rooney's centre only to be given offside. So they did it again, this time bringing Gary Neville into the fun to receive from Rooney and cross for Ronaldo's second goal. It had become a rout.


This fixture provides about as much surprise as a Christmas present without wrapping paper. Not since 1995 have Manchester United lost at Villa Park in the league and a combination of Cristiano Ronaldo's brilliance and an outstanding goal from Paul Scholes ensured that run did not come to an end.

Victory gives United 47 points, a total that after 19 games of the season has never failed to bring the title. Ferguson might not have been aware of that statistic but he did not need anyone to point out the significance of United's position. 'Perhaps that shows we shouldn't believe Jose Mourinho,' said the United manager. 'He said Chelsea would be top at Christmas and they're not. He had to apologise this week about lying about an Everton player [Andrew Johnson] so perhaps he should apologise again.'

United had failed to find any rhythm against an obdurate Aston Villa side in the first half, but the shackles were removed in spectacular style after the interval. Ronaldo ran from inside his own half to score 13 minutes after the restart, before Scholes thundered an unstoppable volley in off the underside of the crossbar to seal victory moments later. The latter goal prompted Edwin van der Sar to run to the halfway line to celebrate, such was the majesty of the strike. With Villa now reeling, United inflicted a final blow five minutes from time, Ronaldo finishing off a move that had started with Ryan Giggs on the edge of the Villa penalty area.

It was a moment that confirmed United's second-half superiority, with the visitors' exhilarating ability to turn defence into attack draining the last traces of belief from Martin O'Neill's embattled side. It is now seven matches since Villa last won, a sequence that has checked the momentum that followed the manager's arrival. With fixtures against Spurs on Boxing Day and the visit of Chelsea following a trip to Charlton, the festive period promises to bring Villa little cheer.

On this evidence, Sir Alex Ferguson can anticipate a much better return. He could afford to leave Wayne Rooney on the substitutes' bench, a family bereavement earlier in the week cited as the reason for Ferguson resting his most penetrative player, and still win at a canter. Not that Ferguson was in danger of getting carried away by this success. The United manager showed he has lost none of his hunger when he subjected Giggs to the infamous hairdryer.

United were already two goals to the good when the Welshman, in possession on the left flank, attempted to pick out Louis Saha with a crossfield ball instead of the more obvious pass to Ronaldo. Ferguson's face took on a distinctly purple hue as he stepped out of his touchline area to berate Giggs with a verbal barrage. Later Ferguson would offer much more welcoming words about Ronaldo. 'He was a revelation,' said Ferguson.


So Upton Park was no more than a blip after all. United ensured that they would lead the Premiership at Christmas for the first time in three years by overcoming Villa's stubborn resistance in the second half, when Cristiano Ronaldo ran amok. Villa were spikily competitive for a long time, but were eventually outclassed, and after that promising start under Martin O'Neill they have now gone seven games without a win, which must be cause for concern.

They were always second-best against opponents determined to atone for last weekend's defeat at West Ham. United had a matchwinner in Cristiano Ronaldo, who gave Aaron Hughes a miserable afternoon, and was outstanding throughout. The Portuguese trickster scored two goals and had another disallowed for offside. In terms of the champagne moment, however, he had to give first place to Paul Scholes, who crowned a trojan stint in midfield with a volley from distance that was special, even by his standards.

United now play Wigan, Reading and Newcastle over the rest of the Christmas programme, and are going to take some catching. They may lack Chelsea's strength in depth — witness the prosaic contributions of Darren Fletcher and Park Ji Sung — but if they can steer clear of injuries and suspensions, the dream is on.

Sir Alex Ferguson certainly believes it. "This just proves that you shouldn't listen to Jose Mourinho," he chortled. "He said Chelsea would be top at Christmas, but they're not. Ours was a fantastic performance against a good side. There was a lot of energy in the Villa team and we had to handle that."

For a crowd in festive mood, there was a nostalgic treat shortly before the kick-off when Ron Saunders was feted on his return to Villa Park. The manager who won the league with Villa in 1981 walked out over a contractual dispute and took charge of Birmingham City the next season, leaving his erstwhile assistant, Tony Barton, to oversee the club's finest hour, when they won the European Cup in 1982. This was the first time that Saunders, 74, had been back to watch a match since his acrimonious departure and, deservedly, he was given the warmest of receptions.

United made two significant changes to the team beaten last weekend. Michael Carrick could be out for a fortnight with an ankle injury, and gave way to Fletcher, and Wayne Rooney spent the first 66 minutes on the bench before getting on for Park. Ferguson explained that Rooney had missed two days' training after suffering a family bereavement in midweek.