Unconvincing United leave it late
You could be forgiven for wondering if any team will dare to grasp hold of this season's Premier League title race after Manchester United blew their latest chance to confirm they are ready to challenge for the big prize once again in this bizarrely thrilling game at Villa Park.
The facts confirm that United's unbeaten record has been stretched to 26 games after this improbable point against a Villa side who believed a famous victory would be theirs after an Ashley Young penalty and Marc Albrighton's close-range finish gave them a comfortable advantage with just 14 minutes to play.
Yet despite the late goals from substitute Federico Macheda and captain Nemanja Vidic that earned a point for United, the reality must be that Ferguson's men are a million miles away from championship-winning form and yet they are not alone in that camp.
With title rivals Arsenal and Manchester City failing to convince and leaders Chelsea struggling to stamp their authority on the chasing pack in their last three games, United had their chance to put down a marker for the rest against a Villa side stripped of a host of established star names.
Instead, they produced 81 minutes of the most inept football a United side has mustered in Alex Ferguson's 24 year reign as Old Trafford chief, with Dimitar Berbatov appearing to have slipped back into the lacklustre mode that he seemed ready to shed after his stunning start to the season.
The Bulgarian barely put a foot right at Villa Park after he missed a glorious first half chance and then had to look on as United sprang into life once he had been removed from the action by Ferguson, who admitted his side were lucky to escape.
"We could have lost six goals in the second half as we were all over the place," fumed a red faced Ferguson. "Villa have hit the post on a couple of occasions and we couldn't really keep up with the pace they played at, which was very disappointing.
"I give our opponents great credit for tackling and biting into us, but we have to say it is a major concern if it takes 81 minutes for a Manchester United team get a shot on goal. To be 2-0 down with 10 minutes to go, we have to be satisfied with a point, but the intensity and desire to win this game took far too long to come. That is something we have to look at."
A substitute's bench featuring the likes of Darron Gibson, Chris Smalling and Gabriel Obertan was hardly likely to strike fear into a Villa side who grew in confidence as this game progressed and appeared set to emerge as fully deserved winners as they established their two goal buffer.
That advantage was more than justified as Houllier's men dominated much of the second half and hit the frame of the United goal on two occasions as James Collins and Gabby Agbonlahor came within inches of opening goals. Villa missed a host of chances to punish a United side who seemed all too willing to accept defeat.
The continued absence of Wayne Rooney had never been more keenly felt with Berbatov and Hernandez offering little in the forward line, with both frustrated strikers picking up petty yellow cards as their angst built at a rapid rate.
However, they were not the only United players who struggled to stamp their authority. Rio Ferdinand often looked shaky at the back, while Michael Carrick and Park Ji-Sung gave the ball away far too often. Aside from his assist for Vidic's leveller, Nani was also out of sorts, but that should not take away from a Villa display that warmed the heart.
United had not registered a solitary shot on target before Villa took a deserved lead as Wes Brown was penalised for foul in the box on Young, with the youthful winger hauling himself off the floor to delightfully fire in front from the penalty spot.
When Albrighton doubled their advantage after a flowing counter attack four minutes later, it seemed as if Villa's bright new era under Houllier was about to lift off and yet United suddenly clicked into gear as they offered an attacking threat for the first time in the game.
Macheda's thumping finish after 81 minutes confirmed he may be more worthy of a place in this United line-up instead of the lamentable Berbatov, while Vidic's headed leveller served to leave Houllier in a confused state as he met the world's media.
"Taking into account the number of kids we have in this team, we would have taken a draw with Manchester United before this game and yet we are so disappointed not to get all three points after getting into such a strong position," admitted the Villa manager.
"I just wish we could have held out for five more minutes before they got their first goal, but it wasn't to be. You have to hand it to United because they kept fighting and that is why they are always challenging for trophies."
For a second weekend running, United got out of jail with a late goal and you have to wonder how long they can continue to flirt with misfortune before they eventually fall to their knees. Unbeaten they may still be, convincing they are not.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Marc Albrighton - The Villa youngster capped an energetic display with a fine goal that looked to have given his side all three points. He looks to be a real star in the making.
FACE IN THE CROWD: England manager Fabio Capello was an interested onlooker hours before he named his squad to take on France at Wembley next Wednesday.
BERBATOV DECLINE: Where has the striker who started the season in such sparkling fashion disappeared to? United's Bulgarian maverick was at his frustrating worst at Villa Park and he needs to snap out of his latest dip in form quickly.
ROONEY UPDATE: Ferguson confirmed that Rooney should be back in contention for a starting spot soon after his week training alone in America. "Wayne has had a good week away and things seem to have gone very well for him," added the United boss. "We got what we wanted out of sending him to America."
UNITED VERDICT: They may be in the midst of their longest unbeaten run in 11 years, but United looked anything but invincible for much of this game. Ferguson has to hope that Wayne Rooney's return sparks their season into life.