Young resumes villain role
Like many a virus, reputations are easy to acquire and rather harder to lose. Being deemed a diver is a stigma players struggle to shake off. It is a label that, whether defamatory or deserved, Ashley Young will probably have to deal with. As Manchester United aim for an action replay of their 19 previous title-winning campaigns, their former Aston Villa winger staged a repeat of his own. For the second successive Sunday, Young won his side an early penalty, setting up a comfortable victory.
Proclaiming him Old Trafford's answer to Luis Suarez might bring irritation to either end of the East Lancs Road, but the Uruguayan has an unwanted tag and now the Englishman risks becoming similarly notorious. "Ashley Young is an absolute disgrace," the watching Newcastle defender Ryan Taylor tweeted. "He's the biggest cheat in the league. His antics are a joke."
The rhetoric was rather more restrained at Old Trafford where the perception was that Young was being professional rather than reprehensible. After the slightest of tugs from QPR's Shaun Derry prompted a spectacular tumble last week, though, Ciaran Clark's outstretched leg prompted the same response this time around. Contact was minimal, instigated and exaggerated by Young but a spot kick was awarded and scored by Wayne Rooney.
"It is a penalty, there's no doubt about that, and I don't think they can have any complaint," Sir Alex Ferguson insisted, though he also conceded: "He played for the penalty and it was a dramatic fall." Alex McLeish, a cautious manager who chose his words carefully, was oblique where many of his counterparts would have been rather more explicit. "It was a very soft penalty," he said. "Ashley threw his leg into Ciaran Clark's leg."
With great fairness, McLeish formed the case for the defence of referees - Mark Halsey in this instance - and added: "The game is played at such a fast pace that one-touch football at the very top level is often quicker even than the human eye." Young's skill, speed of foot and ability to change direction without warning would render him a tricky customer even without the sense he is looking for penalties.
But, as McLeish argued, the innocent suffer for the actions of others. "We feel a little bit aggrieved at certain decisions beyond our control in the last couple of weeks," he said, citing the caution received by his teenage substitute Samir Carruthers at Anfield when the supposed simulator was actually fouled by Daniel Agger.
Young's inability to retain his footing made for a rancorous reunion with the club he left last summer - such vengeance as Villa were able to exact came in the form of a typically clumsy challenge by Alan Hutton that left him writhing in pain - but every time he falls down, United move up.
They now have a five-point advantage at the Premier League's summit, a comfortable win coming with added controversy (although, as refereeing decisions have played a pivotal part in each of their last four games, they all do). "I thought it was one of our better performances," Ferguson added. His side were comfortable throughout and, in all probability, would have dismantled Villa regardless of Young's theatrics.
Rooney, both prolific and profligate, took his tally to 31 goals for the season, scoring a second after linking up with Antonio Valencia. The rather less productive Danny Welbeck mustered only his second goal in 15 games, tapping in Patrice Evra's low cross after the otherwise defiant duo of James Collins and Nathan Baker both left it. Nani scored an injury-time fourth, finishing after a perceptive pass from Jonny Evans. In between, United could have scored many more, with Shay Given producing an exceptional save to thwart Welbeck and Paul Scholes reprising a corner routine from 2000 to almost score with a thunderous volley that, in an instant, transported many back to Valley Parade, Bradford.
Back then, some of his modern-day opponents were in primary school. This was an inexperienced Villa team, with an average age of 23 and seven graduates of their excellent academy. For many it amounted to an education, albeit not an enjoyable one, as master bested apprentice again: in 71 league games against teams managed by his former players, Ferguson has only lost five.
"There's not many managers have the courage to play young players at Old Trafford and Alex McLeish deserves credit for that," he said, loyally. The first of his 15 league titles came in Scotland with McLeish a stalwart of his Aberdeen team.
The run-in is familiar but worrying nonetheless, he said. "My experience tells you that there's always something that's going to bite you on the bum," he added. Squeaky bum time has evidently given way to bite-on-the-bum time.
He exited having coined a new phrase, while Young had departed to a standing ovation. Such is football's moral mess; diving is only a sin when another club's players commit it.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Patrice Evra. Emphatic as the victory was, few United players were at the absolute peak of their game. Evra raided forward intelligently and helped set up the second goal, as well as looking secure defensively.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: The return of Scholes, who was rested for Wednesday's defeat to Wigan, to the midfield made a definite difference. He and Michael Carrick were in complete control. Dimitar Berbatov came off the bench, suggesting he is back in Ferguson's favour while, with Nani fit and in form again, United now have three fine options on the wings.
ASTON VILLA VERDICT: McLeish described their next three games - Sunderland and Bolton at home and West Brom away - as "three cup finals." With his side sitting 15th, he accepted: "The last two seasons are just not good enough for Aston Villa." Given the talent of the youngsters, next season could be brighter, if Villa can stay up. It was a shame Baker was culpable for the second goal because he and Collins had been excellent until then. To their credit, they seemed to enjoy more chances than they did when United visited Villa Park, but they were overrun in midfield.
Follow Richard Jolly on Twitter: @RichJolly