A match that began with a much-publicized protest against his management ended with David Moyes being afforded some temporary respite and a brief smile following a 4-1 victory over Aston Villa. The win was much-needed after a dismal derby defeat and subsequent unrest, but the performance was far from as convincing as the result suggested. With Bayern Munich awaiting on Tuesday, any undue optimism would be foolhardy in the extreme.
But it could have been far worse. When Ashley Westwood curled in a free-kick early on there were plenty of discordant murmurings from an Old Trafford crowd that by and large remains remarkably supportive of their club’s manager. The banner flying over Old Trafford at kickoff that read “Wrong One – Moyes Out” if anything backfired as it was met by widespread boos from those inside the ground.
And, while never looking fully coherent, United recovered to eventually win comfortably. Wayne Rooney scored twice before half-time, the second from the penalty spot after a foul on Juan Mata. Villa were incredibly poor after a bright opening, but still could have made the scoreline very different had Christian Benteke not missed a trio of glaring chances in the second half. Instead, the visitors conceded four straight goals after scoring the opener for the second straight week. Mata got his first for the club just prior to the hour mark before Adnan Januzaj excited off the bench and created a goal for fellow-substitute Javier Hernandez late on.
There were some encouraging signs for Manchester United, perhaps again most notably the play of Mata and Kagawa. Yet, once again that merely raises questions of why such little faith has been put in the pair by Moyes to date.
Moyes continued his tendency to alter his team from game-to-game, with five changes made from the ignominious defeat against Manchester City. United, though, initially picked up where they left off on Tuesday. And the home side’s lackadaisical opening cost them the opening goal in the 13th minute.
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Against a Villa side so quick on the break, Ashley Young committed the cardinal sin of giving the ball away cheaply inside his own half, allowing the pacy Gabriel Agbonlahor to break toward the United box. Rafael brought the danger temporarily to an end by bringing down the United forward, but it was only a temporary reprieve. Westwood’s low-flying free-kick met little resistance from United’s stationary wall and the unsighted David de Gea could only get a despairing glove to the ball.
It could quickly have been 2-0 to the visitors, too. Ciaran Clark had a completely free header in the center of the box from Marc Albrighton’s free-kick but sent it over the crossbar. Despite threatening little, United got back on level terms only seven minutes after falling behind.
Shinji Kagawa showed his quality by cutting in from the left and clipping a fine ball into the box where Rooney was left inexplicably in yards of space and able to simply direct a header into the corner of the net.
The goal did little to improve United’s play. Indeed the match became a horribly scrappy affair. The hosts continued to be sloppy in possession, while Villa appeared to lack the belief and urgency to take advantage of their opponent’s weaknesses. And right on half-time United went in front. The virtue of having the creative talents of Kagawa and Mata was again in evidence. The former broke through midfield and played a ball through to the Spaniard who was clumsily brought down by Leandro Bacuna as he looked to check back in the box. Rooney emphatically put away a penalty to give his team a lead they weren’t to relinquish.
It would surely have been different, though, against more capable opponents. While Villa were abject for much of the encounter, in the first 10 minutes of the second-half Benteke missed two chances that could have changed the face of the game. The first summed up the Belgian’s day. First he miscontrolled when free in the box and then swung and missed at a shot before Michael Carrick, switched to center-back after Rafael came off at the interval, put him out of his misery by clearing behind. For the second, Benteke, who had started to show some of last season’s prolific form of late, headed over from six yards.
Villa paid the price for their striker’s profligacy. United’s third goal perhaps embodied the nature of their performance. There was little pretty about it, with Marouane Fellaini ungainly in trying to control the ball when it fell to him in the box, but Mata took over and was far more decisive in firing it low into the corner to break his United duck.
Benteke continued to be wasteful in front of goal. Still, he may have had a penalty when, after another piece of miscontrol, Nemanja Vidic appeared to impede him as he fell. Meanwhile, the powerful Villa front man also failed to make clean contact as he stretched onto a cross.
The visitors’ defense was equally insipid. After Guzan had done well to deny Rooney, United got a flattering fourth. Januzaj, given a rest by Moyes in recent weeks, provided a real impetus off the bench and provided a delightful cross for poacher-supreme Hernandez to finish at the back post. Moyes can sleep easier tonight, but a massive improvement will be needed simply to avoid humiliation against the all-conquering European champions.