United's backline was relieved to see a couple of fizzing centres from the lively Marc Albrighton and Stewart Downing come to nothing in the opening quarter of the game, and soon after the Reds almost made Villa pay for a lapse in concentration at the other end. Michael Carrick intercepted a poor pass from James Collins and found the onrushing Chicharito, who in turn slotted a lovely ball through to Dimitar Berbatov, but the Bulgarian fired wide.
United continued to look for the opening, but like in the derby against City in midweek the final ball let the Reds down. Apart from half chances for Brown and Carrick, Brad Friedel was relatively comfortable in the opening period. His opposite number, meanwhile, was a little busier than the Reds would have liked, saving low to his right from Young just after the half hour before breathing a sigh of relief a couple of minutes before the break when Downing’s curling effort was deflected wide off Rio Ferdinand.
Having finished the half on top, Villa began the second in much the same vein. A flowing move early on saw Agbonlahor muscled off the ball by Ferdinand as he looked to meet Albrighton’s fine cross with his head. A minute or so later, the ever-eager Albrighton blasted into the side-netting as Villa had United flapping again at the back.
While the Reds were struggling to find any real rhythm, Houllier’s men were visibly growing in confidence and almost went ahead on 54 minutes. Downing made space on the left wing and whipped a dangerous cross towards the back post where Albrighton was waiting, but thankfully for United, the winger’s guided header dropped just wide of van der Sar’s far post.
The Villans went even closer, in quick succession, not long after the hour. Having come up for a corner, which was initially cleared, Collins headed Downing’s cross against the bar, before Agbonlahor smacked van der Sar’s