BIRMINGHAM // Context, in football, can be everything. For Manchester United, a goalless draw against Aston Villa was more than respectable, and Sir Alex Ferguson argued: "I don't think you could call it a bad result." Yet following the stalemates at Chelsea and Liverpool and Arsenal's reverse at Man City, Rio Ferdinand leant another perspective to the scoreline. "We took a bit of confidence from the results before the game but we weren't able to capitalise," he said.
While a draw with a side that defeated Arsenal is acceptable, United's travels have taken them to each of last season's top six, but without yielding a victory. A combination of fixture backlog and an unhurried start has left them playing catch-up, but they remain eight points adrift of the two leaders. Their failure to score, for the first time in the Premier League for a year, occurred in the absence of Dimitar Berbatov. His deputy, Carlos Tevez, brought his headstrong brand of commitment, but his three-month long quest for form continues. It is rare that Cristiano Ronaldo is subdued but the winger, operating on the left, was halted by a part-time right-back in Nigel Reo-Coker.
Ronaldo, removed with eight minutes left, is now a doubt for tomorrow's game in Villarreal. In a match of compelling entertainment and a paucity of chances, the most vibrant display belonged to Gabriel Agbonlahor, who was the major talking point. England's newest international was pulled back by Nemanja Vidic, leading to Villa claims for a penalty and a red card. However, as the United defender pointed out: "The referee [Chris Foy] could have given the foul 30 yards from goal, but once we reached the box I touched the ball and I'm sure it wasn't a penalty."
Yet the match was an illustration of Villa's development. Coupled with win at Arsenal, it meant they embellished their credentials for a top-four finish. But Martin O'Neill deflected the credit. "I wouldn't start talking about this being a magnificent tactical triumph," he said. "But I'm delighted with the progress." They presented a threat to United but, by taking possession of fourth place, Arsenal are endangered more by Villa's emergence. It is, again, about context.