Cristiano Ronaldo is not often overshadowed or overlooked. He has not made a career of being second best, but as he was relegated to second in the pecking order at Old Trafford, he suffered a first defeat in a Manchester United shirt since the 2009 Champions League.
When injury time began, United were trailing 1-0. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had spent Friday lamenting the penalties they had been denied but Mike Dean, long the most theatrical of referees, pointed to the spot after a dramatic pause when Edinson Cavani’s header hit Kortney Hause’s hand. “A very harsh penalty,” said Dean Smith. “I was devastated and fuming with myself,” Hause added, but each could soon smile.
The stage was set for a Ronaldo equaliser. Instead, the penalty was taken by Bruno Fernandes, the man with the superior record. Yet after scoring 42 of his previous 45 spot kicks, he skied it into the United fans. “This is going to be the headline,” sighed Solskjaer, after his decision backfired. “Cristiano is probably the one who has scored the most penalties in world football. Bruno is such a good penalty taker and you would back him with your mortgage.”
In which case, however, some might find themselves homeless. Solskjaer objected to the roles played by Villa players who had crowded around Fernandes, trying to put him off. “That's not to my liking,” he said. Nor, presumably, was the sight of the ball landing in the Stretford End.
For Ronaldo, there was no penalty, no goal, no rescue act. For Aston Villa, a glorious, deserved victory forged by defensive resolve and counter-attacking menace, spirit and skill. “We have had an awful lot of suffering as Villa fans at this stadium,” said Smith, the most famous Villa supporter left at the club after Jack Grealish’s sale. This was just a second win in 35 visits. “A big result,” added Smith. “I thought we deserved it.”
And Hause, the unheralded understudy, upstaged Ronaldo. Drafted in because Axel Tuanzebe is on loan from United and ineligible to play against them, he headed in Douglas Luiz’s 88th-minute corner. “The goal is offside,” complained Solskjaer, highlighting Ollie Watkins’ role, but his excuses were scarcely convincing.
And the goal felt depressingly familiar to United. They conceded from corners too often last season. They were almost breached from one in the first half, allowing an unmarked Ezri Konsa to head over from three yards. That inability to learn their lessons means they have now lost three of their last four games and if Ronaldo did not feature in one of them, they got a reminder his arrival is not a panacea for all their problems.
Their defensive difficulties will extend to selection. The banned Aaron Wan-Bissaka was already out of Wednesday’s game with Villarreal before Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire hobbled off. Villa, bright on the counter-attack, had two golden chances even before either left.
“What epitomised how brave we were was Matt Cash crossing for Matt Targett,” Smith said after one wing-back skied a chance created by the other. Then Maguire played David de Gea into trouble and, after the goalkeeper’s poor clearance, he saved well from Watkins. It was not the first time De Gea denied Watkins, or that he needed to.
United could cite 28 shots, but they were profligate. Before the penalty, their two clearest chances came from Fernandes’ set pieces: a Maguire header that Emi Martinez saved and a Paul Pogba effort that went wastefully wide after Raphael Varane had flicked on Fernandes’ corner. But, as a philosophical Solskjaer mused: “It is such a fine line between heaven and hell.” This was scarcely heaven for him.