United claimed the first silverware of the new decade thanks to goals in each half from cup final specialist Michael Owen and the super substitute who replaced him – Wayne Rooney.
The latter’s 28th strike of the season edged an entertaining Carling Cup final in favour of the Reds, who therefore retained a cup for the first time in the club’s history. The prospects of this had looked grim after just five minutes when Nemanja Vidic pulled down Gabriel Agbonlahor – but avoided a red card – and James Milner put Aston Villa 1-0 up from the penalty spot.
But Owen’s latest goal in a domestic showpiece – he netted for a certain former club in the 2001 FA Cup and 2003 League Cup finals – ensured there was parity for a large portion of the match until Rooney triumphantly headed home 16 minutes from time.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s surprise omission of Rooney from his starting XI was one of six differences to the side which kicked off against Man City in the scintillating semi win. Edwin van der Sar, Paul Scholes, the banned Nani and the injured Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs were also out; in came Tomasz Kuszczak, Nemanja Vidic, Antonio Valencia, Ji-sung Park and the front pair of Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen.
One of the mainstays, and United skipper for the day, Patrice Evra had to defend acrobatically inside the first minute to repel a free-kick from Ashley Young on Villa’s left flank. The resulting corner was also dealt with but Martin O’Neill’s men had posted an early warning, one which the Reds failed to heed.
Moments later, Gabriel Agbonlahor broke beyond the backline and when Nemanja Vidic hauled him down, there were no arguments as referee Phil Dowd pointed to the spot.
The only debate would have been over Vidic’s right to stay on the field – he did, and had to look on in agony as James Milner punished his misdemeanour with a well-struck penalty low to Kuszczak’s left. Villa 1 United 0, after just five minutes.
The Serbian wasn’t even booked but opposite number James Collins did see yellow when he sent Owen sprawling at the other end, unfortunately outside the box.
Carrick wasted the opportunity from the free-kick but his namesake Owen soon meted out his own justice when he swept home the equaliser. Berbatov mugged dawdling Richard Dunne and when the former Manchester City defender caught up with the Bulgarian, he only succeeded in freeing the ball up for Owen to beat Brad Friedel.
Still inside a busy first 20 minutes, Kuszczak denied Milner’s left-foot shot with a fine save and Stewart Downing followed Collins into the book for a foul on Evra. Carrick, however, inexplicably escaped a caution when he brought down Heskey.
Kuszczak made his second save when Heskey turned well inside the box following a setpiece but it was a comfortable collection for the Pole playing his first game since early January.
Ironic cheers from the Villa fans greeted United’s first booking, for Evra’s trip on Ashley Young, but they were not so fond of the first substitution – Rooney on for hamstring victim Owen, a few minutes before the break.
Villa were still adjusting to the change when Park almost put the Reds 2-1 up. The Korean’s well-struck shot came back off the post and was cleared by Cuellar, this after Valencia skipped past the grounded Stephen Warnock and pulled the ball back.
That closing attack and the introduction of Rooney augured well for the second half. Indeed, Wayne was the first player to try his luck after the break but sliced wide from outside the area after a promising push through the middle by Carrick.
The midfielder did much better and drew a brilliant parry from Friedel at the end of a flowing United move involving Park and the back-heeling Berbatov. On the counter-attack, Agbonlahor ran at Vidic but whipped his shot well past the far post.
Such was the pattern of the second period; the Reds seeing more of the ball and patiently probing, and Villa waiting to utilise the electric pace of Young and Agbonlahor against Evra on a card and Neville on as a substitute for Rafael.
Vidic became the second United defender to be booked when he clattered Agbonlahor from behind – censure that was long overdue in the view of Villa fans and neutrals.
The same trio that undid West Ham in midweek combined again to upset another team of a claret and blue persuasion in the 74th minute. Berbatov sublimely flicked a ball on to Valencia and when the Ecuadorian dug out a cross under pressure on the right, Rooney rose to send a header arcing past Friedel’s hand into the top right-hand corner and trigger scenes of ecstasy among the United fans and coaching staff alike.
The goal was as brave as it was brilliant with Collins looming large in Rooney’s face; there was no such opposition when Valencia found Wayne again moments later but Friedel’s right-hand post prevented the free header causing further damage to Villa.
So the game remained far from over, and that point was underlined when Kuszczak had to push the ball over his bar when a right-wing cross was directed goalwards. But United remained the more likely to score and when Valencia surged forward in injury time, he deserved more than to strike the side netting.
A third goal wasn’t required though, and for once in normal time at the new Wembley, United were victorious. Cue joyous celebrations as Evra collected the 26th major trophy of Sir Alex’s amazing 23-year reign.