By Rob Bishop
Villa's five-match unbeaten run came to a halt as they slipped to defeat by leaders Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Trailing to a Wayne Rooney goal inside a minute, Gerard Houllier's men were left facing a mountainous task when the England star grabbed his second on the stroke of half-time.
Record signing Darren Bent reduced the deficit with a well-executed goal in the 58th minute but there was no way back for the visitors after skipper Nemanja Vidic drilled home United's third five minutes later.
It was just a pity Brad Friedel had to finish on the losing side on the night he became the oldest player in Villa's history.
The American keeper made some outstanding saves, including a magnificent 88th-minute dive to deny Rooney his hat-trick.
Unfortunately for Friedel, he could hardly have had a worse start to his milestone game.
With less than 60 seconds on the clock, his opposite number Edwin Van Der Sar played a long free-kick from the edge of United's penalty area and Rooney displayed superb control before firing a powerful right-foot drive over the advancing keeper.
It was a blow which understandably had Villa reeling, and after Stiliyan Petrov's challenge had forced Nani to fire too high, there was further cause for alarm when Dimitar Berbatov was well positioned to meet Rooney's right-wing cross at the far post.
The Bulgarian striker, fortunately, failed to get any power behind his downward header, allowing James Collins to boot clear.
At least Villa displayed some nice touches going forward during the early stages, albeit without any real cutting edge.
Both Stewart Downing and Bent miscued shots during one raid, although Bent did considerably better when he moved on to an astute Ashley Young pass before testing Van Der Sar with a dipping shot which the keeper did well to hold.
Downing also had a 20-yard shot blocked before it could inflict any damage, although either side of that effort.
Friedel was required to make two excellent saves, tipping away Nani's fiercely-driven left-footer for a corner before holding Berbatov's low drive at the foot of his right-hand post.
The keeper did even better in the 37th minute, diving to his right to claw away Patrice Evra's stinging shot following Ryan Giggs's penetrating through ball.
But just when it looked as if Villa had reached the interval just one goal behind, they conceded a second in stoppage time.
Ciaran Clark's slip on the greasy surface enabled Nani to deliver a curling, probing cross from the right and it was the sort of chance Rooney doesn't miss.
Once again, Friedel could no nothing as the England striker despatched an unstoppable half-volley from just inside the six-yard box.
Villa's best move so far saw Marc Albrighton and Young open up the home defence with a slick exchange of passes down the left before Albrighton crossed dangerously.
Bent appeared to be impeded by Evra as he went down in the area but referee Chris Foy ignored his appeals for a penalty.
Then Young sent a 20-yard free-kick over the bar after Albrighton had been flattened by John O'Shea - and in the 58th minute Bent delighted the vocal Villa fans with his second goal for the club.
Young nudged the ball wide to Downing just inside United's half and the winger sprinted down the right before hitting a hard low centre which Bent clinically side-footed past Van Der Sar from seven yards.
There was even the notion of an equaliser when Albrighton's shot was well saved by Van Der Sar but in the 63rd minute the home side effectively killed off the game, Vidic driving into the roof of the net through a crowded goalmouth after Rooney had played a shot pass back to him.
Despite that setback, Villa continued to adopt a positive approach, Richard Dunne heading just over from Downing's corner and Young striking the bar with a right-foot shot from 20 yards.
But Friedel again took centre stage in the closing minutes, pushing aside Nani's angle shot and then diving to his left to tip away Rooney's piledriver.
MAN UTD: Van der Sar, Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, O'Shea, Giggs, Carrick, Nani, Fletcher, Berbatov, Rooney. Subs: Lindegaard, Smalling, Da Silva, Anderson [for Fletcher, 34], Scholes, Owen, Hernandez.
VILLA: Friedel, Dunne, Clark, Collins, Walker, Downing, Young, Albrighton, Makoun, Petrov, Bent. Subs: Marshall, Cuellar, Pires, Reo-Coker [for Downing, 80], Agbonlahor [for Petrov, 74], Delfouneso, Heskey [for Albrighton, 69].