x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

United fail to close the gap

Manchester United were held to a draw at Villa Park and squandered the chance to close the gap on the league leaders Chelsea and Liverpool.

Gabriel Agbonlahor, left, is barged off the ball by United's Nemanja Vidic in their 0-0 draw at Villa Park.
Gabriel Agbonlahor, left, is barged off the ball by United's Nemanja Vidic in their 0-0 draw at Villa Park.

BIRMINGHAM // Wayne Rooney was guilty of a glaring miss at Villa Park as Manchester United missed the chance to close the gap on the Barclays Premier League leaders Chelsea and Liverpool. Martin O'Neill's side ended their 14-match losing sequence against the Red Devils but the visitors could have cut the deficit on the pacesetters to six points after the leading two were both held earlier in the day. The fit-again Rooney squandered United's best chance when he fired over the bar from close range in the second half. Villa had received a massive confidence boost with their win at Arsenal last weekend and they were well worth a share of the spoils over the 90 minutes. United were the better side in the opening 45 minutes although clear-cut chances were at a premium. In the second period it was Villa who looked the more likely to make the breakthrough as they hustled the visitors out of their stride for long spells with James Milner in splendid form. Gabriel Agbonlahor, Villa's only out-and-out striker, was on the receiving end of a hefty early challenge from behind by the defender Rio Ferdinand but shook it off and was on the end of the first decent chance of the game. A long free-kick by Luke Young was headed on by the Villa captain Martin Laursen and the first-time effort from Agbonlahor was not sweetly struck and hit straight at the United goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar. The Villa keeper Brad Friedel was called into meaningful action for the first time after 14 minutes to turn aside a swerving drive from Cristiano Ronaldo, who had cut inside the recalled Nigel Reo-Coker with ease. Van der Sar went down at his left-hand post to comfortably save a 20-yard effort from Reo-Coker after he had made a powerful break from the halfway line. Ronaldo fouled Stiliyan Petrov in an area ideal for the free-kick skills of Ashley Young in a central position but it was James Milner who stepped forward and scuffed his low shot across the face of goal. The game opened up more towards half-time and Ashley Young produced a superb tackle to deny Ji-Sung Park in the Villa box as the South Korean prepared to shoot after being found in space by Rooney. Rooney set up another possible opportunity for Park when he arced a low ball across the area but the United player just failed to make contact. O'Neill was incensed when the referee Chris Foy awarded a no foul against Nemanja Vidic after he held on to the shirt of Agbonlahor when the striker was in full flight as he cut in from the left flank into the penalty area. However, the home side were relieved to see Rooney squander a golden opportunity after 62 minutes. Michael Carrick's overhead kick dropped into the path of the England striker, who volleyed high and wide when he would have been expected to at least hit the target. Ferguson made his first substitution after 71 minutes with Nani replacing O'Shea. Van der Sar went down to his right to cling onto a testing low drive across him from Ashley Young, before Curtis Davies became the first player to be booked after a 76th minute touchline foul on Ronaldo. Sir Alex Ferguson's side pressed for a winner in the closing stages but rarely looked like finding it, completing an unusual day when none of the Premier League's so-called "big four" could muster a goal between them. *PA Sport