| Dwight Yorke's eagerly anticipated return
to Aston Villa was overshadowed as the team he left behind battered Manchester
United almost to the point of submission in the top of the table clash
at Villa Park.
But even though the FA Carling Premiership leaders threw everything at United in a frenetic and compelling second half, the Reds somehow emerged with a valuable 1-1 draw.
United even managed to take the lead just over a minute into the second half through Paul Scholes but, after a deflected effort from Julian Joachim had secured a 55th-minute equaliser, the visitors were left hanging on.
At times it was desperate, at times it was fortunate, but Villa's failure to convert their host of chances ultimately cost them dearly.
At least they proved that their title chances, so often cast in doubt after not having played any of their main challengers, are genuine.
And they certainly showed that there is life after Yorke, whose £12million move to Old Trafford courted such controversy earlier this season.
Before the whistle, the striker was given a largely supportive welcome back to the club where he spent the first nine years of his career.
After it, he as roundly booed every time he touched the ball.
However, he had little impact on a first half which Villa dominated through the industrious running and endless tackling of their midfield trio of Alan Thompson - back for the injured Paul Merson - Lee Hendrie and Ian Taylor.
Yorke did manage to raise a smile after his first effort on goal threatened the corner flag.
But when Villa defender Ugo Ehiogu's unchallenged header just passed the upright from a corner it put a cagey start to the game firmly to an end.
While Dion Dublin provided the focal point for Villa's attacks, it was Joachim's pace that really tormented the United back four.
On one foray down the left wing on 23 minutes, he crossed for Hendrie and the new England recruit dummied his way past Gary Neville and guided the ball through the legs of Jaap Stam.
Scoring seemed straightforward as Peter Schmeichel lay helpless on the floor but Hendrie hesitated and instead of shooting, left the ball for team-mate Taylor, who was tackled as he took aim.
Joachim was then put through himself by Taylor but as he raced clear of the United defence, his touch let him down and the keeper was able to come out and gather comfortably.
United took their time to get out of first gear but Villa still had to be on their guard as Gareth Barry cleared a back header from Andy Cole off the line and the former Newcastle striker struck a half volley wide.
They were still not dominating the game though and a stand-up row between Schmeichel and Stam after they collided showed the pressure they were being put under.
However, just over a minute after the break they stunned Villa by turning the match on its head.
Cole crossed from the right and keeper Michael Oakes dived out to palm the ball clear to prevent it reaching Ryan Giggs, a half-time substitute for Jesper Blomqvist.
But Oakes only succeeded in diverting the ball as far as Scholes, who hit a powerful first-time volley almost straight through the keeper and into the net.
Villa responded to that huge setback with the passion, commitment and determination which had carried them to the top of the table.
Their equaliser may have owed much to luck as Joachim darted forward to the edge of the penalty area and took aim only to see his shot deflected up off the boot of Denis Irwin and over the head of the stranded Schmeichel.
But from then on they were on fire, with Joachim almost shaving the far post with a 20-yard shot and Thompson coming even closer as he hit the upright with a free-kick that left the United keeper rooted to the spot.
Ehiogu saw a header blocked and Joachim had another shot deflected but this time the ball flew wide, while Stam's outstretched boot was all that denied Dublin.
United boss Alex Ferguson had clearly seen enough. Nicky Butt entered the fray with 20 minutes left to replace striker Coles in an urgent bid to bolster the over-run midfield.
Ultimately it worked and although Villa continued to press forward, United held out and also had chances for victory, with Yorke and Scholes both shooting straight at Oakes when well placed.
Both sides were cheered off at the end but neither Villa nor United had time to rest on their laurels with the small matter of games against Chelsea and Bayern Munich respectively to prepare for on Wednesday night.