A star is born at Old Trafford
Manchester United are no strangers to auspicious debuts. Cristiano Ronaldo's contained a vignette of trickery and Wayne Rooney's a hat-trick that encapsulated his fondness for the grandest of stages. Yet neither offered the immediate significance of Federico Macheda's bow. Part Roy of the Rovers, part Kiko of the comeback, he managed to overcome Aston Villa and overhaul Liverpool with one swing of the right boot. The momentum in the title race, courtesy of United's No. 41, may have moved to Manchester in an instant.
As United staggered and then surged back to the summit of the Premier League, an improbable, incredible victory became a proof of their resources as well as their willpower. The fifth-best team in the country were defeated by a team who finished with a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old in tandem in attack, operated with only one of their first-choice defence and had nine members of their first-team squad absent.
Yet it was a personal triumph for a teenage Italian, catapulted into the spotlight by a glorious goal. Macheda was only given a squad number part way through the season and had never been on the bench before. Yet, fresh from a hat-trick for the reserves, he was Ferguson's first choice to change the game. There can be a fine line between desperation and inspiration, but this definitely belonged in the latter category.
In added time, with United mounting an onslaught on the Villa goal, Macheda accepted Ryan Giggs' pass, executed a sharp turn and, to complete a goal reminiscent of Thierry Henry in his pomp, curled a shot around Brad Friedel and into the far corner. It was appropriate, perhaps, that his tutelage has come from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the second-string side. This was a cameo worthy of Manchester United's greatest substitute, and, much like Yossi Benayoun's goal the previous day, it felt like a defining moment in the season the moment the net billowed.
Yet, but for six injuries and three suspensions, it is unlikely Macheda would have been involved. The contributory factors were plentiful: his anonymity may have been preserved were Dimitar Berbatov fit, had Rooney not been banned or if Manucho and Fraizer Campbell were not loaned out.
Nevertheless, while he may have begun the day as United's sixth choice striker - even excluding players who prefer other positions, such as Giggs and Ronaldo - Macheda ended it by partnering another rookie replacement, Danny Welbeck, in attack and arguably scoring the most important goal of the league campaign to date.
"I just said 'well done'," said Ferguson, which appeared a rather understated reaction. "He's going to receive a lot of publicity over the next few days and he will need to handle that." The goal, he admitted, was: "Marvellous, but his whole contribution from the moment he came, his second-phase play was fantastic. He was always penetrating with his runs, which he's very good at. He was a threat all the time."
The winner was unfamiliar but this was the sort of comeback United have copyrighted. Although they had led when Giggs touched a free kick to Ronaldo, who produced an unstoppable shot to find the top corner, they trailed for 22 minutes. Then, while Villa believed Ashley Young was fouled in the build-up, Ronaldo produced a left-footed finish from 20 yards to take his personal haul for the season to 19.
At 2-2, a decision was required: stick or twist? "Gamble," said Ferguson instinctively. "Winning is the name of the game at this club. We play the right way, we deserve the result because we tried to win the match. Yes, we take risks, but risks are part of football. I love to see that kind of adventure. We didn't defend well for the goals today, but there is always a goal threat from us, and always the chance we will win the match. That is even more exciting than anything."
Their defensive failings were pronounced in a match where, of the many sidelined players, the suspended Nemanja Vidic may have been missed most. With Gary Neville floundering, an unmarked John Carew had headed in Villa's equaliser from Gareth Barry's right-wing cross. In a subsequent reshuffle, Neville was dispatched to right-back and the taller John O'Shea brought into the middle to combat Carew. The scorer nonetheless created Villa's second goal, chipping a cross that Gabriel Agbonlahor headed in.
It appeared reward for Villa's attacking ethos. Further chances were created and a first win at Old Trafford for more than a quarter of a century appeared probable. Instead, it proved the prelude to a fight-back that brought frustration in Merseyside and the West Midlands alike.
"I'm disappointed for the players, I thought they played great. They didn't deserve that," said Martin O'Neill. They didn't yet, in their own way, Manchester United nonetheless merited victory.
MAN OF THE MATCH: John Carew - United's late heroics should not obscure the excellence of the Villa target man. He scored one goal, made another and forced United into a change of personnel. "He is a massive man and he gave us problems in the air," admitted Ferguson.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Ronaldo and Giggs, two of the few first-team players at Ferguson's disposal, played significant parts in the comeback. However, it was not a match to savour for Nani and Carlos Tevez, who were both replaced. The Argentine may face Porto on Tuesday, but the Portuguese will not, when Vidic is back to bolster the defence.
ASTON VILLA VERDICT: "We're not finished yet," vowed O'Neill, though a fourth-place finish is more unlikely. Nevertheless, their performance was a vast improvement on the display at Anfield, where they lost 5-0 a fortnight ago. Perhaps the most encouraging element was the return to form of Agbonlahor.