Italian teenager Federico Macheda netted an injury-time winner on his Premier League debut as Manchester United reclaimed top spot with a dramatic 3-2 victory over Aston Villa on Sunday.
Macheda, 17, signed from Lazio in 2007, curled a stunning strike past goalkeeper Brad Friedel two minutes into stoppage time at Old Trafford to snatch all three points for the reigning champions.
United looked set for defeat after John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor had canceled out Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener. But Ronaldo’s second and Macheda’s strike saw United to a victory that left Sir Alex Ferguson’s team a point in front of Liverpool with a game in hand.
Liverpool’s injury-time victory at Fulham 24 hours earlier had enabled Rafa Benitez’s team to go top and heap the pressure on United ahead of the game.
That pressure was tangible as Ferguson’s men toiled in the early stages, clearly nervous without the suspended trio of Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes and Nemanja Vidic and the injured Rio Ferdinand.
This was a makeshift United line-up and Villa were determined to take advantage. Darren Fletcher was forced to clear off the line from Carew’s fourth-minute header and Agbonlahor destroyed Gary Neville for pace on numerous occasions before Ronaldo gave United the lead against the run of play.
The 14th minute goal came as a result of a free-kick awarded by referee Mike Riley after Friedel had handled James Milner’s back-pass. Ryan Giggs’ short free-kick to Ronaldo opened up the angle for the Portuguese forward and he expertly curled the ball past Friedel from 12m to claim his 14th league goal of the season.
But United could not build on the opening goal and Villa continued to hold sway as the dominant force.
United captain Neville, making his first appearance following a two-month injury lay-off, was tortured by the pace of Agbonlahor and he was also fighting a losing battle in the air against the towering Norwegian forward Carew.
At times, it was painful to watch the United stalwart being embarrassed by the Villa forwards. Had Ferdinand and Vidic been available for selection, it is doubtful Neville would have been risked by Ferguson, but the United manager had no choice.
Neville’s frailties were exposed in the 30th minute when Carew equalized for Villa with a routine header from Gareth Barry’s cross. Former Lyon and Valencia striker Carew merely stepped away from Neville and headed past Edwin van der Sar from 10m.
United had no answer to the equalizer and Ferguson’s players appeared leggy after their international exertions across the globe over the past two weeks.
The champions could not cope with the pace of Agbonlahor and Ashley Young and the experience of Carew. Villa were rewarded for their positive approach when England striker Agbonlahor headed them into the lead in the 58th minute. Having dispossessed Ronaldo deep inside Villa territory, Stiliyan Petrov released Carew, before the forward teased Neville prior to crossing for Agbonlahor to head past Van der Sar from 6m.
Now United had real problems. A third successive defeat would hand the title initiative to Liverpool, regardless of United’s game in hand, and they simply had to stop the rot.
But it did not look like coming until Ronaldo, so often the savior in the past, came to the rescue 10 minutes from full-time.
Villa’s failure to deal with Neville’s cross into the penalty area saw the ball drop to Michael Carrick on the edge of the box and he laid it off to Ronaldo 25m out.