With their 25 match unbeaten streak clearly hanging in the balance, Manchester United scored two late goals to secure a 2-2 draw with Aston Villa.
Villa went two goals to the good through Ashley Young and Marc Albrighton, and it looked like United were left for the dead, but two goals in five minutes from Federico Macheda and Nemanja Vidic.
The result ultimately extended their unbeaten streak to 26, but, disappointingly, it was United’s sixth away draw of the season – and second consecutive at Villa Park.
Sir Alex Ferguson only made two changes to the team that faced Manchester City on Wednesday with Wes Brown coming in for the injured Rafael and Javier Hernandez replacing the suspended Paul Scholes.
It was the 141st straight match that the Gaffer made an adjustment to his starting XI, and some might not realize, but this is the only time that Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Edwin van der Sar started together since the 2008 UEFA Champions League final.
That is a far cry from the 240th consecutive appearance that Villa’s American goalkeeper, Brad Friedel, was making which started six-and-a-half years ago.
It was quite interesting to see that the United shirts had the poppy insignia, which honors the brave men and women who have served in the armed forces, stitched on them, which should silence the critics who have labeled them uncaring or disrespectful.
The first chance came on five minutes, and came when Nani dangerously whipped a ball towards the back post, but Barry Bannan and Richard Dunne were first to react to clear the half-chance.
Following some arrant passes from a couple of the Villa players, United were invited to get forward, which Brown curled in cross, but it was only half-cleared by Dunne, and the ball eventually made its way to Nani and his shot from 20 yards just fizzed over Friedel’s bar.
Villa had a good chance a minute later with Bannan playing a delightful defense-splitting pass to Stewart Downing, but Rio did well to deflect the ball out for a corner.
United should have been in front in the 17th minute, but Dimitar Berbatov failed to hit the target after Hernandez did well to play him behind the Villains’ defense.
Mike Dean rightfully brandished the first booking of the match to Bannan after the young midfielder dreadfully just wiped out Chicharito once he realized he was beaten for pace.
After another free-kick conceded by Bannan, Nani sent in a teasing ball, which an unmarked Brown flicked on, but it was wide of Friedel’s near post.
Then it was Villa’s turn to put United under the cosh for a few minutes.
Even though there were at least two clear-as-day fouls by James Collins and Dunne on a couple of crosses, United could barely clear their lines with a bunch of half-clearances and Villa dominated the possession, but fortunately they lacked the killer instinct in the final-third.
Villa went route one, and it caught United sleeping.
Collins’ sent a long, direct free-kick, which was flicked on by Gabriel Agbonlahor to an almost unsuspecting Ashley Young, but the winger’s right-footed snapshot was expertly saved by Edwin van der Sar.
A couple moments later United earned a free-kick 25 yards from goal.
Instead of having an attempt at goal, Nani cleverly played in Evra, and the Frenchman’s low, driven cross cross, but the pace on it beat all the Villa defenders and Chicharito’s run, and in the end it went out for a throw.
In the 39th minute, United had a decent passing – long and short – movement, which resulted in a slight opening for Michael Carrick to shoot, but the midfielder pulled his shot well-wide of the far post.
Villa had another good spell of possession, which resulted in two very good chances.
The first came when an uninspired Berbatov clearly showed he was not a defender as he allowed Downing to cut inside and blast a shot at goal, but thankfully Ferdinand got a block and it went out for a corner.
The next opportunity came from that ensuing corner when Vidic was forced to mark both Collins and Dunne, and the latter of the two had a free header, but lacked the accuracy it needed to beat van der Sar, and the United goalkeeper collected the shot.
Villa definitely ended the half the better team, and may have been in front in stoppage time, but another misplaced from Dunne let United’s sloppy defending off the hook.
The first opportunity of the second-half came when Marc Albrighton nipped in and stole the ball from Ji-Sung Park, and played the ball to Young who returned the ball to him, but thankfully it was blocked Vidic.
Ferdinand and Vidic did well to snuff out Agbonlahor’s shot, but the latter of the two miscued a pass, which allowed Albrighton to shoot, but thankfully the young winger’s shot hit the outside of the net.
Then Nani earned a very soft yellow card from the referee, and there was no clear indication of what it was for, either.
United got out of jail when Downing’s perfectly-placed cross picked out his fellow winger on the far stick, but Albrighton’s unmarked header went just wide of the mark.
United’s next passing movement was very symbolic of their shameful away form.
Berbatov did well to pick out a wide open Nani on the right wing, but the winger let the ball skip and it went out of playing killing off the chance.
United earned their first corner of the match, and Nani sent in a very dangerous ball, but Fletcher was unable to get the right touch on with his header and it was cleared.
Chicharito then returned the favor from Bannon’s cynical challenge, and he earned his second yellow card in the last three games.
More careless passing from United allowed Villa to attack them, and it took a big palm by van der Sar and a flick
Villa continued to press and they were within a whisker of going in front, but Collins’ header smashed against van der Sar’s bar.
Like he already did three or four times in the second-half, Albrighton dispossessed Park and was encouraged to shoot, but it went directly at the United goalkeeper.
More slack defending allowed Agbonlahor in, but his shot, which was aided by a slight deflection from Vidic, and thumped the foot of van der Sar’s right-hand post.
Villa then earned a penalty kick when Brown barged over Young, and the right-back luckily got a yellow card for his challenge.
To add and rub salt to their wounds, Young sent van der Sar the wrong way and dispatched his spot kick with authority into opposite corner.
Ferguson was completely frustrated with the combination of his frontmen, Hernandez and Berbatov, so he withdrew both of them in favor of Federico Macheda and Gabriel Obertan, but before they could even have a say United were
It was again their two wingers, which carved apart the United defense as Downing picked out Albrighton on the far post and this time he put the ball into the net for Villa’s second.
United had two decent chances to get a goal back, but some great blocks by their defenders kept them out.
First it was Michael Carrick’s shot from the top of the box, which bounced off Collins for a corner.
Then from that corner, Rio smashed United’s first goal bound effort, but Albrighton stuck his head on the ball and cleared it.
In the 80th minute, United got a goal back when Kiko let fly from 20 yards, and his well-struck shot left Friedel with no chance as it nestled in the top corner.
Downing, who was the biggest Villa threat all match, cut inside against Brown, but his powerful shot was always rising and went over van der Sar’s bar.
Like they have always don when their backs are against the wall, United found the equalizer.
Nani whipped in a wonderful cross, which was wonderfully met by a diving head by the advanced-Vidic to set up a very tense, interesting six minutes.
The goal saw Park withdrawn in favor of Chris Smalling to add some height and ability in not only the defense, but the United attack as well.
Gerard Houllier made his first change subbing off Albrighton in favor of young Eric Lichaj in attempts to secure the draw.
In stoppage-time, Macheda laid the ball into the path of Obertan, but the young French winger could not get his shot on target.
Then Obertan did well to leave two different Villa defenders for dead, but he could not clip the ball over an onrushing Friedel – and the American used his face.
From the resulting corner, Carrick was wide open at the top of the box, but his guided, goal-bound shot was blocked by a Villa defender.
Manchester United did well to come back and secure a draw against Aston Villa, but Sir Alex Ferguson will surely see this as two more points dropped away from home.
When United needed an inspiration, it was Gabriel Obertan who provided it and it was his pace and runs which inspired their fight-back.
E. van der Sar – 6; W. Brown – 5, R. Ferdinand – 5, N. Vidic – 6, P. Evra – 5; Nani – 6, D. Fletcher – 6, M. Carrick – 6, J. S. Park – 5 (C. Smalling – X), D. Berbatov – 4 (F. Macheda – 6), J. Hernandez – 6 (G. Obertan – 7)
F. Macheda (81′), N. Vidic (85′)
Shots (On Target): 16 (3)
Fouls Conceded (Suffered): 9 (11)
Bookings: Nani, J. Hernandez, W. Brown