Larsson makes his mark
Manchester United arrived to praise their newest Scandinavian striker and departed celebrating the enduring ability of another. That Henrik Larsson and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are extremely accomplished goalscorers is hardly breaking news, but a demonstration of their prowess is impressive nonetheless.
Not least because of the timing. For both, there was a certain inevitability. No matter how many times Solskjaer has scored in the early stages of games or what his tally of meaningless consolation efforts or superfluous strikes that boost goal difference is, he is indelibly associated with a late arrival from the bench to decide a vital game. This was no exception; indeed, with an injury-time winner, this was archetypal Solskjaer.
Loyalty and humility have contributed to his status as an Old Trafford legend, but not nearly as much as late goals. The strike that secured the Champions League in Barcelona - another in added time - is the most famous, but earlier in United's treble season, he emerged from the ranks of the substitutes to eliminate Liverpool from the FA Cup at a similarly late stage.
Now it was Aston Villa's turn. Solskjaer's shot was drilled hard and low, squeezing inside Gabor Kiraly's near post and saving United a replay and, potentially, a first third-round exit in Sir Alex Ferguson's 21 seasons in charge.
'Gabor's distraught,' said Martin O'Neill, amid suggestions his on-loan goalkeeper should have saved it. 'Somebody blocked my view for the winning goal,' said Ferguson, who admitted he had been contemplating a replay. 'But with Ole Gunnar on the park, you always have a chance of scoring.'
Though Ryan Giggs struck the bar just after Larsson's opener, Villa responded with admirable purpose to conceding. 'We played our best football when we went behind,' O'Neill explained. Gary Cahill headed narrowly wide and Tomasz Kuszczak saved smartly from Isaiah Osbourne before Milan Baros equalised.
Latching on to Cahill's mis-hit shot, he beat Kuszczak and Martin O'Neill said: 'He took the goal splendidly. He's come and shown a vibrancy. That's the Milan Baros we really want. Centre forwards live or die by the number of goals they get.'
It is something Manchester United's veteran Scandinavians know only too well. Solskjaer was only introduced because Larsson had a tight calf.
'You're taking one really good finisher off and putting another really good finisher on,' explained Ferguson, enjoying a position the luxury of his attacking resources now affords. Larsson's availability made a difference; six days ago at Newcastle, Ferguson had fielded a bench without a specialist striker.
With Solskjaer restored to the replacements, the Norwegian swiftly emulated the Swede, but the significance of Larsson's debut extended beyond opening his United account.
'I wanted to find out about his fitness and his sharpness and he's proved that,' added Ferguson. 'His movement and his judgment was terrific. That split-second movement he gives was terrific.'
O'Neill knows that better than most. If he had not been beforehand, the Aston Villa manager must have been filled with a sense of foreboding when he saw the teamsheet. The majority of Larsson's 242 Celtic goals were scored under his guidance.
If a reminder of his clinical finishing was hardly required, one arrived anyway after 55 minutes. After a move involving Michael Carrick, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, he steered a shot into the top corner.
'He scored the goal and he's always capable of doing that,' the Villa manager said. 'I never thought for one minute he couldn't score in any league he chose. It is great news for Henrik and great news for Manchester United. It suits both parties.'
It was far from the only time Larsson and Rooney combined. Indeed, for an untried partnership, there was much to purr over. The 35-year-old's fine positional sense and ability to dovetail on debut with new team-mates suggested that he could have a pivotal say in the title race. An understanding of both his game and his role within the side enabled him to provide for Rooney without losing sight of his responsibility when leading the line.
Three times Larsson supplied chances for Rooney, most memorably with a deft backheeled flick. All were spurned and the Englishman endured the sort of match he seems prone to when, no matter how frequently he shoots, a goal proves elusive.
Besides unselfishness, United appreciate style, too, and Larsson showed himself capable of that as well, juggling the ball on the edge of the Villa penalty box before passing to Gary Neville. For once, it wasn't Ronaldo supplying the most memorable tricks of the day.
Ferguson, however, chose to concentrate on more prosaic contributions. 'I think he'll score important goals for us,' he said. 'He's been doing that all his career.' The comparison he reached for was Eric Cantona but few have scored more important goals, or more winners, for United than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Henrik Larsson - A simple choice. He oozed class in everything he did. For United, the only regret must be that he returns to Helsingborgs in the middle of March.
UNITED VERDICT: The result was satisfactory, as was much of the performance, but warning signs were there. United were more profligate in front of goal as they have been for much of the season and, in the absence of Nemanja Vidic, lax in defence after taking the lead.
VILLA VERDICT: Deprived of several vital players and short of numbers, they resembled O'Neill's Leicester, gritty and often underestimated. Theirs was a defensive gameplan, however, and Juan Pablo Angel was stranded alone in attack in the first half. This month may show if Randy Lerner's millions can transform them into a side with attacking menace and the quality to challenge for a European place.
INJURY NEWS: Nemanja Vidic and Paul Scholes are suffering with a bug, according to Ferguson, who denied squad rotation was the reason for their omission.
ROONEY IN TROUBLE? There were suspicions that the Manchester United striker kicked out at a Villa defender. 'I'm staying out of it,' said O'Neill, but a wink suggested he thought Rooney may have been guilty.