Manchester United 1 Aston Villa 0
Manchester United kept alive their best chance of breaking a five-year trophy drought with this victory, yet their display offered the latest evidence that Ralf Rangnick is still to prove the mid-season Mr Fixit he was hired to be.
Aston Villa will ponder how they did not enjoy a rout. Steven Gerrard’s men attacked when they wanted from the first minute to the last. Somehow United hung on and, while they remain in the Champions League, Rangnick’s brightest hope of ensuring the club do not match their longest sequence for 40 years of no silverware remains a 13th FA Cup triumph.
The big issue for him, however, concerns a group of players who are flatlining: Victor Lindelöf, Marcus Rashford and Raphaël Varane were the chief culprits against Villa but this is a team-wide malaise.
For the seventh game of his interim tenure Rangnick left out Jadon Sancho, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Phil Jones, Nemanja Matic and Cristiano Ronaldo from the 1-0 loss to Wolves, as Rashford, Diogo Dalot, Lindelöf, Fred and Bruno Fernandes started.
Sancho and Ronaldo had “muscular problems”, the German said, providing a first chance to see United without the latter in a game they must win, the ageing Portuguese’s previous exclusion under Rangnick a meaningless Champions League outing versus Young Boys. In the absence of the 36-year-old might the lesser-spotted gegenpress from the team tutored by the so-called “godfather” of the function be more evident? The answer, in the first half at least, would be no.
Aston Villa's new signing, Philippe Coutinho, was not involved with Steven Gerrard's two changes seeing Tyrone Mings and Ollie Watkins come in for Kourtney Hause and Bertrand Traoré.
United’s mission was to play at a higher tempo than recently. Fernandes and McTominay set the tone via zipping passes and it paid early dividends. Luke Shaw’s corner broke to Fred whose flighted ball into the area was headed home by McTominay with Ezri Konsa guilty of not picking him up.
Villa's response was immediate as they went close from the second of two corners: Douglas Luiz swung the ball in from the left, Mings flicked on and Watkins went close to diverting in after Lindelöf's failed attempt at a clearing header.
This signalled how open United were, a fact further illustrated when Emiliano Buendía ghosted in from inside their half, Fred unable to stop him, before shooting – and missing – from inside the area.
Gerrard's frustration was visible when Jacob Ramsey punched through United's feeble resistance only to pass the ball out of touch. Then, at last, McTominay did what a midfielder should: stop an attack by prodding the ball away from Buendía on the edge of the area. John McGinn was the next Villa player to enjoy the copious amount of space being afforded him by United as he blazed an effort at David de Gea, the Spaniard flinging himself left to save.
Fernandes and Rashford have thus far endured seasons to forget. The latter’s touch was noticeably awry while the former chugged about hoping to find some inspiration. When Fernandes did awake he threatened to breach Villa only to see his effort blocked.
United were still looking vulnerable at the back, however, and poor control from Lindelöf saw Watkins pounce before smacking a shot against the crossbar.
Villa might have been three or four ahead by this stage. United’s next escape came when Ramsey’s attempt deflected off McTominay for a corner.
Rashford did at least close the first half brightly. First he conjured a slick bring-down and pass to Edinson Cavani, who teed up Fernandes, only for the midfielder to shoot over. Then, Fernandes set Rashford running at goal, Konsa doing just about enough to steer him wide.
United opened the second half with a Fernandes corner which Villa repelled with ease. There was still little evidence of the solidity Rangnick desires. This was a team grinding through the gears and they looked to be punished for their sloppiness when Danny Ings headed in from a well-worked free kick. After a lengthy delay the referee, Michael Oliver, was ordered to take another look on the touchline screen and ruled the effort out for offside.
This raised the temperature. McGinn took out Fred, Shaw did the same to Matty Cash, the stadium a wall of Cup-fever noise, especially after Ings was ruled offside after Watkins had poked home.
Villa were fully in charge of proceedings. United were unable to move beyond the edge of their area as the white-shirted wave flowed at them. This was not, simply, good enough for a side of their talent and pedigree.
De Gea was cat-like to save a Cash effort before Shaw’s latest foul had him booked. At the other end Rashford’s refusal to follow-up a rebound from Greenwood’s shot was odd. Near the final whistle Villa could not profit from McGinn’s corner and thus United are still in contention, Villa mystifyingly not. – Guardian
FA CUP FOURTH-ROUND DRAW
Crystal Palace v Hartlepool United
Bournemouth v Boreham Wood
Huddersfield Town v Barnsley
Peterborough United v Queens Park Rangers
Cambridge United v Luton Town
Southampton v Coventry City
Chelsea v Plymouth Argyle
Everton v Brentford
Kidderminster Harriers v West Ham United
Manchester United v Middlesbrough
Tottenham Hotspur v Brighton & Hove Albion
Liverpool v Cardiff City
Stoke City v Wigan Athletic
Nottingham Forest v Leicester City
Manchester City v Fulham
Wolverhampton Wanderers v Norwich City
Games to played between February 4th and 7th