Manchester United 0 Aston Villa 1
This was not Nemanja Vidic's most commanding evening in a Manchester United jersey but even he could see that his side's problems were up at the other end of the pitch.
"I don't think we had the patience in the final third and we didn't take our chances," he said. "That's why we lost the game. That's what football is all about: scoring the goals that win games."
Statistically, United are doing more of that than last season – 34 Premier League goals, against 27 at the same stage of their 18th title-winning campaign – but that is not how it seems out there on the pitch.
Dimitar Berbatov's kick at the night air instead of the ball Michael Carrick offered him must have been among the chances Vidic had in mind, contributing to the emerging sense that his name won't be flickering up in red on the Stretford End scoreboard too often, and neither can Michael Owen be expected to provide the goals of old. Antonio Valencia is, by his own admission, still working on a goal celebration and, though his animation after scoring at West Ham nine days ago suggested that some basic choreography might be imminent, he simply does not look like a man who believes he can score.
"Shoot," Old Trafford urged after he had taken a Wayne Rooney dummy and glided into Aston Villa's penalty area early on Saturday evening but Valencia sought hasty refuge in a pass to the centre-forward. It was a metaphor for Rooney's afternoon and for a season in which his 11 league goals are nearly three times more than United's next best league finisher.
On days like this – when he lashed a shot against the underside of the crossbar and was caught red-handed taking a dive – the burden shows. It would have helped him if United had enough confidence in their strikers to start with two of them, as Villa did, and not one. They were at home, after all.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, insists there will be no more big spending next month, though, and owners the Glazer family yesterday strongly rebutted reports which last surfaced 18 months ago suggesting that, amid their own long-running attempts to refinance their debt, they are ready to sell out for £1bn to a Chinese consortium. United will go with what they have this season.
Little wonder Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, wants to reduce any weight of expectation surrounding his side and sail serenely on under the radar. He observed on Saturday evening that, "There's good ability here that sometimes gets overlooked." But not for much longer after wins over Chelsea, Liverpool and United. A small squad remains his shortcoming but if they all stay fit, his will be a side bursting with something to prove to the England manager, Fabio Capello, come the spring and that is the commodity which the other top-four challengers have to fear most.
"If they continue to play like that there is an opportunity there for Fabio Capello if he is having second thoughts about things," O'Neill said. "I want them propelled on by that ambition for our benefit. I am being quite selfish about that."
Gabriel Agbonlahor, perhaps the best counter-attacking striker in the country on his day, can have that hope for next summer, though Ashley Young has more to do. He has not generally been reaching the heights which made Saturday such a difficult day for the rookie full-back Darren Fletcher.
Still, all-England combinations like the one which set fire to Villa's winless run at Old Trafford dating back to 1983 – Agbonlahor laying off for Young, who whipped inside Fletcher to loop a cross to which the striker beat Vidic – must tantalise any England manager.
United threw everything into an equaliser but Villa's defensive signings have restored a defence made brittle by the loss of Martin Laursen last season, while Richard Dunne has proved one of the buys of the summer. "He has been a quality player for eight or nine years," O'Neill said. "I don't know what went on at Manchester City. I am just delighted he has come to us."
Dunne was bitter about the way he left City, but there are merits in a fresh start. "I came here because I felt this was a team on the move; a team that could get results like the ones we have got this season against the big four," Dunne said. "It's going well for me – and the team – but you have to be careful. When you start patting yourself on the back it can all come crashing down."
Villa's Christmas programme is certainly the one to watch: a visit to the Emirates and a home game against Liverpool come in the space of three days. With the Arsenal return on 27 January we will know soon enough how much the elite have to fear. A fuller picture of United's title threat may take longer to form.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Kuszczak; Fletcher, Vidic, Brown, Evra; Carrick, Anderson (Gibson, 68); Valencia, Giggs (Owen, h-t), Park (Berbatov, 62); Rooney. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Welbeck, Obertan, De Laet.
Aston Villa (4-2-2): Friedel; L Young, Dunne, Cuellar, Warnock (Collins, 62); A Young, Milner, Petrov, Downing (Reo-Coker, 81); Heskey (Carew, 74), Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Sidwell, Delph, Beye.
Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
Booked: Manchester United Rooney; Aston Villa L Young.
Man of the match: Cuellar.