Manchester United applied pressure to fourth-placed rivals Manchester City with a 1-0 victory over Aston Villa, courtesy of Marcus Rashford’s first-half strike.

Louis van Gaal made five changes to the XI that started at West Ham in midweek but the match lacked any real intensity, even if defeat confirmed the Midlanders’ inevitable relegation to the Championship.

After Jordan Ayew skied the game’s first attempt, Marcos Rojo’s header over the top from Memphis Depay’s near-post free-kick registered the Reds’ opening gambit on 10 minutes. The hosts adopted a steady approach and, from one of many patient build-ups, Joleon Lescott produced a nervous clearance behind his own goal from a Rashford centre.

Juan Mata jinked into a dangerous position, only for his shot to find touch, while ex-Red Kieran Richardson also produced a wayward effort when Marouane Fellaini’s header clear fell to him. The brightest moment of the half came on 32 minutes as Rooney was fouled by Lescott in midfield. The captain drilled the set-piece to the overlapping Antonio Valencia and when the right-back’s cross arrived in the middle, Rashford supplied a predatory finish past Brad Guzan for his seventh goal in 12 games.

Guzan then comfortably dealt with a cross-shot from Rooney and a heavily-deflected Memphis free-kick as Villa remained in the game when the half-time whistle sounded, despite failing to show too much attacking ambition.

With Memphis more involved, United searched for a second strike to effectively make the points safe but Rashford was unable to profit when twice put through by Mata, firstly being hustled out of his stride by Alan Hutton and then dragging his finish wide.

Memphis bent a drive off target and had a free-kick that failed to trouble Guzan, while Mata forced a stop out of the keeper following Daley Blind’s clever corner. Guzan also escaped a goalmouth scramble when Fellaini challenged him but referee Kevin Friend deemed no offence to have been committed.

Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial replaced Rooney and Rashford but United failed to show the necessary devilment to breach the visiting defence again. With seven minutes left, Blind and Schneiderlin managed to prevent substitute Rudy Gestede tapping in an Ayew pass. Suddenly, Villa sensed a goal with Gestede hitting a post from Ashley Westwood’s corner and, from the following set-piece by the midfielder, Ciaran Clark forced a diving save out of the otherwise largely unemployed David De Gea.

Gestede, a real threat in the air, also sent a header over the top while Memphis was close to wrapping things up in stoppage time when Guzan touched his shot onto a post, from Martial’s incisive through ball.

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