FEDERICO MACHEDA will not be receiving a Premier League winners’ medal when they are struck at the end of May, regardless of whether Manchester United strike out to claim their 18th title crown.
Macheda cannot play the requisite 10 games to satisfy league rules but so decisive and dramatic was his contribution to United’s cause here, his team-mates should club together to mint a replica if they do, indeed, equal Liverpool’s all-time record.
The Italian-born teenager yesterday delivered the sort of sucker punch which often proves decisive in championship races.
Macheda, a one-time member of the Lazio youth system, played out his own wildest fantasy at the Theatre of Dreams with the most dramatic debut goal that restored United to the top of the league table.
The kid called ‘Kiko’ may have had to be introduced to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and co in the United dressing room before kick off, but every member of the squad and every United fan in the world will know his name this morning thanks to his 93rd-minute winner that may well have shattered Liverpool’s title dream.
Macheda’s wonderful turn and curling shot ensured that United completed a magnificent fight-back — launched, almost inevitably, by Ronaldo — just when it looked like goals from John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor looked to have inflicted further damage on United’s bid for five trophies.
Ronaldo is one player that may well have reason to believe he is untouchable, whether Alex Ferguson likes it or not. Real Madrid remain fixated on a possible £75m (€82.5m) deal for the winger this summer but, after this display, they may well need to chuck a few more millions at Old Trafford to get their wish.
The two goals Ronaldo provided to return Manchester United to the head of the race for the Premier League Holy Grail, with so many of his regular colleagues missing, was a hugely important contribution, even if his overall display was not one of the most impressive since he arrived on these shores.
With so many big-name players, such as Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Dimitar Berbatov inactive through suspension and injury, the emphasis was on the Portuguese more than ever. He may well have delivered better performances this season, but he may not have scored a more crucial goal than the one he rolled into the bottom corner 10 minutes from time which lodged doubts in Villa’s minds.
They were desperately trying to hold on to their lead when Ronaldo swivelled and guided a left-footed shot from the edge of the area to level an hour after his opening free-kick had settled nerves at Old Trafford, just hours after Liverpool’s late show at Fulham had stripped them of leadership.
He has proved himself peerless from dead ball situations from all distances and angles. James Milner’s unnecessary back pass, in between the corner of the 18-yard and six-yard box, presented a new challenge and with one flash of his red right boot Brad Friedel’s four-man wall was rendered useless as the ball arced over them and dipped in between the crossbar and Nicky Shorey’s head on the line at the far post.
Such a body blow for a Villa side with just one point from their previous five games and with Liverpool’s 5-0 humiliation still fresh in the memory could have been catastrophic, but the visitors showed a bravery that deserved better.
Carew had already been denied by Darren Fletcher’s goal line clearance, but when Gareth Barry was allowed to squeeze out of a tight spot and deliver another telling cross, Gary Neville was no aerial match and the Norwegian striker headed his 12th goal of the season.
Without the combative qualities of Vidic United simply had no answer to his physical presence and Carew has a deft touch, too.
He demonstrated exactly that with the subtle way he controlled Stiliyan Petrov’s pass before lifting the ball into the area for Agbonlahor to out-jump Patrice Evra. That goal looked certain to breathe new life into their hopes of a top-four finish and deal a potentially fatal blow to United, but Ferguson’s side are the undisputed kings of late comebacks.
REFEREE Mike Riley (Leeds). Had a strong afternoon and barely put a foot wrong, despite the complaints of United. His decision to deny Macheda a penalty for a blatant dive was spot on.
MATCH RATING *** Depleted United were far from their best, but they still managed to salvage something late. Villa will never get a better chance to end their long wait for a league win at Old Trafford.
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