Ander Herrera netted twice as in-form Manchester United saw off a spirited Aston Villa side to go third in the Premiership.
The Spaniard, who at one point in the season struggled to even get in the United team, showed manager Louis Van Gaal why he deserved his starting spot with two smart finishes each side of Wayne Rooney’s superb touch and finish from just inside the penalty area.
Christian Benteke scored for Villa in the second half to make the game more of a contest but Villa fans’ hope of seeing their side steal a point was dashed in injury time when Herrera scored his second – the first time the former Atletico Bilbao player had hit a brace in his career.
Despite his optimism going into the game, Tim Sherwood’s men offered very little in front of goal while at the other end, the defence stood firm until two minutes before the break when an injured Alan Hutton allowed Daley Blind room on the left hand side to cross the ball into the area where Herrera finished tidily through a mass of bodies.
United doubled their lead on 79 minutes when substitute Angel Di Maria went down the left and crossed for Rooney who allowed the ball to drop over his shoulder before finishing in the top corner past a helpless Brad Guzan.
The jubilant United fans were silenced a minute later when a miscued corner from the right by Joe Cole found its way to Belgian Benteke who fired straight at David De Gea but the Spanish goalkeeper fumbled the shot into the goal to give the Midlanders an unlikely lifeline back into the game.
Any hopes of a comeback were crushed in stoppage time when Herrera slotted the ball home with a conservative finish from the edge of the area.
After the match United manager Van Gaal said he was very pleased with the fifth Premiership win in a row which keeps his side firmly in the Champions League positions with games against Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea to come.
“It is now a rat race and it will be fantastic to be there next week against City where we have to get three points,” he said.
Villa boss Sherwood said he felt his team were always in the game until the crucial third United goal.
“The third goal killed us but it was encouraging. The players gave me everything and left nothing on the pitch but Manchester were too good for us,” he said.
The win means United go above rivals Manchester City and piles even more pressure on Aston Villa for their crunch match on Tuesday night against fellow strugglers QPR.
“It’s a massive game for us. They got a win but we’re hoping to have six points between us and them at the end of the match,” added Sherwood.