Manchester Utd 1 Aston Villa 0
There was outright anger beneath the gallows humour of Aston Villa supporters as they watched the last rites of a season that had long since stopped fighting for life.
For Manchester United fans, meanwhile, there was a large amount of boredom and no small measure of frustration but, ultimately, the comfort of three more points that kept them in the hunt for Champions League football.
United’s followers had the relief of victory and the contentment of Wayne Rooney’s return to the starting line-up to sooth the discomfort of another laboured, uninspiring display from Louis van Gaal’s team.
And there was another brilliant contribution from a teenage striker who was unknown outside Old Trafford a couple of months ago.
Yet it was a telling indictment of where United’s season has reached that the resigned majority of home supporters could not compete with the noise from a travelling contingent of just 2,500 whose club were in the final throes of an embarrassing relegation.
United have become dull, deliberate and low on tempo and their fans, for the most part, have come to expect it and learned, for the short-term at least, to live with it.
The remainder of this season is about pipping their rivals to the Premier League’s final Champions League qualification spot and, with a fair wind, an FA Cup to compete for.
Then will come the big decision on the future of a manager who conceded on Saturday there was little on show to excite fans who, for a generation, became accustomed to swashbuckling football.
“A win is a win and, in our race to get into the Champions League position, it was important to do that,” said midfielder Juan Mata.
“Yes, we could have scored more goals, but a win is a win.
“Maybe fans and the media took the win for granted and we never do this. We now have Crystal Palace (on Wednesday) where hopefully we can win again, then we have the semi-final in the FA Cup (against Everton) which gives us two very clear aims, which is to win – if we can – every game in the Premier League to get Champions League football, and then to win the FA Cup which the club hasn’t won for a few years.”
United won in second gear but, had their visitors not been a demoralised, shambolic Villa side, Saturday’s listless display might well have been punished.
Even the league’s worst side almost stunned United as substitute Rudy Gestede hit the woodwork in the final stages, yet United held on and, while the manner of the victory will hardly frighten rivals for a top-four finish, it can’t go without notice either.
So, too, will the latest heart-warming chapter of the Rashford story; the 18-year-old’s fabulous finish in the 32nd minute lighting up a forgettable game and giving him a seventh goal in 12 first-team appearances.
Rooney looked bright for 45 minutes before weeks of inactivity caught up with him after the break, but there were enough flashes of invention to suggest the England man will have an important role in the season’s final weeks.
United took total charge from the opening whistle and had forced a string of corners before Rashford struck, but their pedestrian tempo rarely looked like carving open a battle-weary Villa defence.
Eventually, it was Rooney’s fine pass that released Antonio Valencia and his pinpoint cross that made the most of superb movement from Rashford, whose finish was that of a much more experienced performer.
Rashford might have doubled the lead early in the second-half but he stabbed a shot just wide before Villa rallied briefly and Gestede struck a crisp volley against the post.
“It’s been a difficult season for everyone involved with Aston Villa,” said caretaker manager Eric Black.
“I’m pretty sure now, knowing the people and speaking to people within the club, the only thing in their mind is taking this great club back and hopefully the supporters will get a feeling for that.
“It’s not for me to criticise here there and everywhere. Criticising should be over now. It should be about rebuilding.
“If that can start next week, if that can start on Monday morning then great because this is a fantastic football club and I don’t think there’s anybody who could deny that.
“The sooner we try the sooner we’ll get there.”
MAN UTD (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6; Valencia 6, Smalling 6, Blind 6, Rojo 6; Schneiderlin 6, Fellaini 5, Mata 6 (Fosu-Mensah 90), Rooney 6 (Lingard 67), Depay 6; Rashford 7 (Martial 76).
ASTON VILLA (4-3-3): Guzan 5; Hutton 6, Lescott 6, Clark 6, Cissokho 6; Bacuna 6, Westwood 5, Gana 5; Sinclair 5, Ayew 6, Richardson 5 (Gestede 82).
Referee: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire)
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