Radamel Falcao’s second-half header denied Aston Villa a first home win over Manchester United in 19 years. The Colombian striker’s second goal for the club and first since in his last start two-and-a-half months ago cancelled out Christian Benteke’s superb 18th minute opener for the hosts at Villa Park. But there will be disappointment that United failed to make it seven wins in a row, especially after Villa were forced to play the final 25 minutes with 10 men following a controversial red card handed to Gabriel Agbonlahor.
The veteran striker was dismissed for what looked like a fairly innocuous clash with his former teammate Ashley Young when going for a 50-50, but United failed to apply significant pressure to a Villa defense that excelled throughout. They had been camped behind the ball in the early stages, before in their first meaningful attack Benteke curled a delightful effort into the net for his second goal of the season. United had been dominant but sterile in the final third, but got back on level terms eight minutes into the second half when Falcao rose in the center of the box to exquisitely direct Young’s cross beyond Guzan.
Manchester United again lined up with three at the back, and looked solid in their shape. But they were sorely lacking in midfield, where the absence of Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera meant a first start since August for Darren Fletcher. In the buildup to the game Louis van Gaal had called for his team to start producing performances to match the impressiveness of a winning run that has seen them rise to third in the Premier League. But, while United controlled possession, there was a lack of zest and incisiveness in their passing as they largely failed to discomfort a Villa team set up to sit back and hit on the break.
It wasn’t a counter attack, but a set piece that saw Villa, looking to bounce back from their first defeat in six matches against West Brom last week, go in front. Benteke chested the ball down on the right of the box and had the strength and skill to create enough space against Jonny Evans to curl a shot perfectly beyond an unmoved David de Gea.
Villa grew into the game after going in front and continued to restrict United to half chances. Falcao and Robin van Persie got little service up front, and when they did get a sniff of goal the impressive Jores Okore and Ron Vlaar in the Villa back three were generally there to intervene. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan was alert, too, to palm an in-swinging cross from Young away from the far corner of his net.
The match took on more vigor in the second half as Manchester United, helped by Fletcher going off and Michael Carrick moving up into the midfield, played with more purpose and Villa showed more appetite in trying to exploit space on the break. Phil Jones blocked a shot from Fabian Delph, while De Gea did well to turn over a header from Benteke. But United were starting to pose more of a threat to Villa’s goal and, minutes after Van Persie’s drive was turned behind by Guzan, the visitors got back on level terms. Young had the pace and strength to get past Matthew Lowton down the left and his delivery was perfect for Falcao to find the net and aid his chances of a regular starting berth and earning a permanent move to Old Trafford.
When Agbonlahor was shown his matching orders 15 minutes later, a win was in United’s sights. But, despite the man advantage and the return of record signing Angel di Maria off the bench, Van Gaal’s men couldn’t create a meaningful chance. Indeed, it was Villa through a dangerous low cross and a shot just over from substitute Leandro Bacuna that came closest to taking all three points.