One goal was again enough to secure three points for Manchester United and keep them within touching distance of their neighbours at the top of the table, but this victory could have loosened their grip on the Champions League. United travel to Basel in midweek needing to avoid defeat to stay in the competition and they are likely to be without Javier Hernández, who was carried off on a stretcher at Villa Park after collapsing in pain as he sought to dart away from his marker. "I think he's torn ligaments in his ankle, so he could be out for four weeks," said Sir Alex Ferguson, whose offensive options already exclude Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen.
Hernández has scored three goals in United's past five Premier League games, four of which have ended in 1-0 wins. In his absence, the decisive strike at Villa Park came from Phil Jones, who produced a finish that the Mexican would have been proud of to claim his first goal in professional football – but United will not want to have to regularly rely on him to settle matches.
Jones began the match in central midfield as Ferguson yet again tinkered with his team, partly in a bid to find the right blend of dynamism and creativity in a part of the pitch where United have often lacked one or both this season, and partly because Michael Carrick is suspended for the trip to Basel. Jones's goal came in the 20th minute after Patrice Evra found Nani down the left and the Portuguese clipped a perfect cross to Jones, who showed impressive instinct to get between the Villa centre-backs and slot into the net from six yards out. That was United's second shot of a match that began drably and never really improved.
The home side played particularly poorly – "insipid" was the word that their manager, Alex McLeish, used to describe a first-half performance in which they did not muster a single shot. They were not helped by the fact they were without their £9.5m summer signing Charles N'Zogbia, whom McLeish omitted as punishment for failing to turn up for an appointment with the club's physiotherapist on Wednesday. "There will be an internal investigation," said McLeish, but he made it clear that the player still has a future at the club. "He has to take this on the chin and show us what a good player he is."
Villa's abjectness in the first half allowed United to coast. Slick interplay between Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia in the 25th minute led to the Ecuadorian chipping a cross to Nani, who met it firmly with a header from 14 yards out, bringing a good save from Shay Given. In the 31st minute, Valencia rifled one just over from 25 yards out.
Villa had to change goalkeepers in the 38th minute after Given suffered a suspected hamstring injury while clearing the ball. Brad Guzan came on in his place. At the other end, Anders Lindegaard, having been given a rare start as Ferguson rested David de Gea, might have welcomed a chance to show what he could do, but he would have to wait until deep into the second half, when Villa finally summoned some urgency.
Indeed, they should have scored in the 69th minute, when Emile Heskey – on in place of Jermaine Jenas, who became the third player to collapse with an injury not caused by contact – missed a glorious chance. After Richard Dunne headed on a corner, the striker nodded over from three yards out.
United began to look curiously vulnerable and in the 76th minute Lindegaard had to make his first serious save, tipping James Collins's header over the bar. United occasionally threatened with shots from distance, but not until the 87th minute did they cut Villa open again, Rooney and Carrick swapping a smart one-two before the England striker boomed the ball over from 15 yards out. It did not matter. This time.