United missed a big opportunity to record a seventh successive win when, after having the upper hand against a Villa side who played the last twenty minutes with ten men, they shared the points against opponents who, while efficiently organised, are clearly the kind of teams the Reds need to beat, especially in the circumstances, if they are to be taken seriously as challengers for the league title.
United dominated the early stages but failed to capitalise on their possession, the only effort on target a shot from Van Persie that the keeper held easily. It was Villa who opened the scoring with their first real chance, Benteke bringing the ball down on the edge of the box and curling his shot expertly into the far corner, a superb finish that even De Gea in his current form had no chance of stopping.
It was an especially bad goal to concede. You sense that had Villa gone behind a collapse may well have been on the cards, but the goal visibly relaxed them and, though United continued to dominate much of the possession and there was some clever interplay between Van Persie and Falcao at times, they were easily contained by a Villa defence ably marshalled by Ron Vlaar. The midfield saw a lot of the ball but did not produce the passing at pace that has been a feature of recent games and the best the Reds could produce in the first period was a curling cross from Young evaded everyone except Guzan, who turned it away at the far post.
United made a change at half time, going to a back four and pushing Carrick into midfield, replacing Fletcher and immediately adding more fluency to the Reds’s attacking forays. It was De Gea, however, who made the first significant intervention of the second half, making a crucial save at close range from Benteke’s header. United clearly carried more of a threat going forward though and Guzan had to make saves from Van Persie and Mata before the Reds grabbed what had seemed an inevitable equalizer, Young’s superb cross from the left finding Falcao, whose powerful header gave the Villa keeper no chance.
Di Maria returned to action in place of Van Persie, and United suddenly found themselves with an extra man when Agbonlahor was sent off after a heavy challenge on Ashley Young that looked a marginal call at best. Young is already off the Christmas card list of Villa supporters and the boos following the incident were predictably cranked up further, although in truth he seemed to have no hand in provoking the red card. Unfortunately, the Reds failed to make the extra man count and, although they continued to have the bulk of possession, Villa actually carved out the better chances in the later stages. Bacuna blazed a shot just over the bar and, in stoppage time, only a timely intervention from Phil Jones prevented Benteke from getting onto the end of across after a quick break from the home team.
The draw extends United’s unbeaten run going to the Christmas period, but has to go down at two points lost given United’s long periods of dominance and the red card. A timely reminder that Van Gaal may well take the opportunity to force home to his players that, despite the recent run of wins, his United side remains a work in progress rather than the finished product.