Wayne Rooney came off the bench to ensure Manchester United retained the League Cup by beating Aston Villa 2-1 on a painfully bittersweet afternoon for his team-mate Michael Owen.
With England coach Fabio Capello watching from the stands, Owen had evoked memories of his glory days with a wonderful, instinctive finish to cancel out James Milner’s early penalty for Villa.
But just as he might have been starting to entertain hopes of an international recall, a hamstring injury ended both his afternoon and any lingering hopes he may have had of making Capello’s squad for the World Cup.
Gabriel Agbonlahor had scored the winner when Villa won 1-0 at Old Trafford earlier in the season and it was immediately apparent that his pace, unleashed from the left-side of his team’s attacking trident, would again trouble a United defence missing Rio Ferdinand.
Within four minutes, Ashley Young’s first-time pass had sent him clear of Nemanja Vidic, who resorted first to shirt-pulling and then to a desperate lunge to prevent his opponent from getting a shot away.
Vidic, remarkably, escaped sanction but Milner ensured Villa took the lead by sending Thomas Kuszczak the wrong way from the resulting penalty.
With both sides displaying a refreshing commitment to attack, the tone had been set for an entertaining, open encounter and United were quickly back on level terms courtesy of a vintage piece of finishing from Owen.
The striker had already served notice that he was in the mood to catch Capello’s eye when, having robbed Carlos Cuellar, he went past James Collins only to have his progression towards goal arrested by the Villa centreback’s crude lunge.
There was however nothing anyone could do about his equaliser, which came after Berbatov dispossessed Richard Dunne 30 yards out.
The Villa defender recovered the uncharacteristic lapse with a superb tackle on the edge of the area but succeeded only in diverting the ball from Berbatov’s toes into the path of Owen, who didn’t break his stride as he steered a controlled low shot beyond Brad Friedel’s right hand.
Milner tested Kuszczak with a drive three minutes later and Agbonlahor should have, at least, found the target when the loose ball broke to him on the left of the goalmouth.
But as the opening period wore on it was United who looked the more likely to add to their score, with much of their drive coming from the energetic forward thrusts of Park Ji-Sung.
The South Korean midfielder sliced one good chance wide after being teed up by Berbatov’s back heeel and, having broken from deep inside his own half and combined deftly with Antonio Valencia, saw another effort blocked by Stiliyan Petrov before being denied by the woodwork in first-half stoppage time.
Valencia was again involved, skipping past Villa’s would-be England left-back Stephen Warnock with an ease that will have been noted by Capello before delivering a cross that was deflected to Park 12 yards out. His first-time shot struck the inside of the post and then Carlos Cuellar before finally being scrambled to safety.
By that stage Rooney had replaced the desperately unlucky Owen but it was Berbatov who continued to look the most likely to open up Villa, and another deft backheel from the Bulgarian gave Michael Carrick the chance to force Friedel into a fine save four minutes into the second period.
Villa’s best chance of the second half fell to Young, who was unmarked as Berbatov’s clearing header fell to him just inside the box but shanked his volley into the turf and wide of the target.
Three minutes later, Rooney applied the decisive blow with his 28th goal of the season, beating Friedel with a looping header from Patrice Evra’s cross after the France left-back had combined neatly with Berbatov.
Rooney beat Friedel with another header five minutes later with another header which came back off the bottom of the post. United had to survive some late scares but, ultimately, did not need the added insurance of a third goal.
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