They called him The Magician at Liverpool, though throughout his time at Barcelona, they considered him more of a curse, with his £142m price tag. Yet here at Villa Park, making an extraordinary cameo debut, Philippe Countinho looked a man revitalised, an iconic player once more and, in the warm embrace of a fan base desperate to love him, a wizard reborn.

When he came on to make his Villa debut and mark his return to the Premier League on 68 minutes, Manchester United had just taken a two-goal lead. He had been warming up for a while and we were anticipating a big entrance. Yet by the time he got on the pitch, Bruno Fernandes had just driven in United’s second and his arrival felt a like a whimper, a footnote perhaps.

Even Ralf Rangnick must have been anticipating that, at long last, he had a decent performance and result to analyse in his video booth this weekend. Enter the long-lost magician. Coutinho was having none of it. Twenty minutes later, Villa were level, pushing on for a winner and inspired by a delightful assist and a goal from the Brazilian.

Villa would have to settle for a draw. A magician’s powers don’t return all at once, after all. There are limits. But at times in that frenetic finale it felt like his spellbinding personality would engineer the most dramatic victory.

Poor Rangnick. Even when United are better – and they did look coherent here – they end up looking bad. If the performance was good, the inability to hold a lead suggested a team bereft of confidence lumbering towards a Europa League place. If they’re lucky.

United were a team almost bereft of galaticos. There was ageing maestros like Edinson Cavani and Nemanjo Matic, young hopefuls in Mason Greewood, Diego Dalot and Anthony Elanga and the kind of workmanlike, un-showy players in Victor LIndelof, Fred and Alex Telles who polarise opinion.

Only Bruno Fernandes and Raphael Varane suggested the glamour and pizazz of a Manchester United team. You suspect Ralf Rangnick likes it this way. Injuries had denied him the services of Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford. Harry Maguire is still playing his way back to fitness and so was on the bench but Rangnck chose to leave Jadon Sancho there. Indeed, it was bench made up of a glut of expensive signings, many of whom have arrived at the club touted as the final piece in the complex jigsaw which will see the team restored to greatness.

And it felt like we saw, at least for twenty minutes, a team more in Rangnick’s image. They worked hard and Cavani, though not a centre forward the German coach would naturally buy, held the line superbly while full-backs and wingers sprinted earnestly up and down as they had fully absorbed Ralf’s tactical training manual.

They were helped by a neatly worked free-kick and an abysmal piece of goalkeeping on six minutes, which gave them a shot of confidence and a 1-0 lead. Telles ran over the ball from the free-kick but crucially gave it a feint touch, allowing Fernandes to take a couple of touches and get a shot away. Martinez seemed to think the free-kick had been taken illegally or maybe he was confused by a late feint from Cavani, who made to deflect it but failed to connect. Whatever, the Argentinian keeper collected the ball and then let it slide through his legs, thereby deflating a buoyant Villa Park.

To his credit he recovered well to race out and block a Greenwood shot on 19 minutes and then to parry a Telles free kick on 28 minutes. By then, Villa were back in the game, dominating long periods of possession as United sat deep ready to counter. At least they looked organised it a little worried. First Ollie Watkins should have done better on 32 minutes when Emiliano Buenida played him in, but he shot softly at De Gea.

Then Buendia himself angled a superbly powerful header from a Lucas Digne corner through a crowd of players, which De Gea punched away on 36 minutes.

Villa Park was in a better voice now and continued to be so in the second half. Jacob Ramsey excited the Holte End with a strike that had De Gea scrambling to his right. New signing Lucas Digne pulled back a cross for Buendia, who shot at De Gea and then the former Everton left-back drove a ball into the side netting, the net ripple at least suggesting a goal.

Matty Cash made decisive inroads into the United box, though he did also almost gift them a goal on the hour with a misplaced pass to Elanga. The Swede drove goal-wards and then shot wide, much to Cavani’s displeasure. Mason Greenwood ran from deep to strike across goal on 61 minutes, eschewing better options for teammates. Essentially United looked a counter-attacking team, but there is no shame in that when you applying pressing high up the pitch as they did on 66 minutes.

Villa tried to play out, Fred picked up the loose pass and played in Fernandes. With no Ronaldo to inhibit his freedom, here was the Fernandes doing what we’ve come to admire, charging through from deep into goal-scoring positions. He fairly broke the crossbar with his shot which then rebounded over the line before he set off celebrating in front of the United fans.

He also happened to steal the thunder of Philippe Countinho, who was preparing to come on for his Villa debut after his loan move from Barcelona. His reception was understandably a little more muted than it would have been at 1-0. The man he replaced, Morgan Sanson, was also non-plussed by it all, booting a few water bottles before taking his place on the bench. But Coutinho would make his mark on 76 minutes. Mings drove towards the United box, found the Brazilian who exchanged passes with Carney Chukwuemeka before playing in Ramsey, who finished cleanly and decisively to make it 2-1.

Yet there was more. Villa Park, reinvigorated, sensed the weakness of this United side. A lovely exchange of passes down the left on 83 minutes saw Buendia play in Ramsey. Full of vigour, he drove into the box, crossed and with Varane sprawling to intercept yet missing, there was Coutinho to make it 2-2. In his eagerness, he almost got his feet in a muddle but he did enough to force the ball over the line and receive the embrace of the Holte End. He never felt love like this at the Nou Camp.


Courtesy: Daily Mail

Facebook Comments