BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom (AFP) - Manchester United's slim hopes of reviving their Premier League title challenge were dealt a blow as they were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw at 10-man Aston Villa on Saturday.
Louis van Gaal's side needed Radamel Falcao's second-half header to cancel out Christian Benteke's fine opener for Villa in a contest overshadowed by referee Lee Mason's controversial dismissal of Gabriel Agbonlahor for a seemingly innocuous challenge on former Villa team-mate Ashley Young.
It ended a run of six successive victories for van Gaal's side as they lost ground on second placed Manchester City, who had earlier moved level on points with leaders Chelsea, who face Stoke on Monday.
The gap now stands at seven points between those two and United, who sit third.
But United could have no arguments with outcome after their big-name stars failed to deliver against an organised, efficient and, at times, potent Villa team, who have now lost just one of their last six matches.
Van Gaal made his intentions clear by further bolstering his forward-line with a recall for Colombia striker Falcao, with Wayne Rooney deployed in a deep-lying midfield role.
United adopted Van Gaal's favoured back three yet tactically Villa had the better shape and were always a threat with the counter-attacking game which has become their trademark under Paul Lambert.
Robin van Persie should have done better when he failed to connect with Young's cross, yet it was Villa who deservedly took an 18th-minute lead courtesy of Benteke.
Little appeared on as Fabian Delph's free-kick found the former Genk player at the back post, yet he controlled superbly, twisted Jonny Evans inside out and bent a shot superbly inside the left post.
It was a real moment of magic from Benteke, who looked back to his brilliant best after a recent suspension delayed his comeback from a long-term injury.
Brad Guzan did well to palm away a Young cross-shot, yet United were below their best and it was no surprise to see van Gaal make a change at the interval, with Tyler Blackett introduced for Darren Fletcher.
The home side picked up where they left off upon resumption and it took a fine last-ditch block from Phil Jones to deny Delph following more good work from Benteke.
The pair combined again from the resulting corner with Delph's delivery met with a thumping header from the Belgium international only for goalkeeper David De Gea to pull off a stunning reflex save as he continued his excellent recent form.
United threatened for the first time in the half when Rooney's brilliantly-disguised ball handed an opening to Van Persie, yet his shot was too close to Brad Guzan.
The visitors finally began to build some momentum and Guzan did well to hold Juan Mata's low driven shot.
And Villa's resistance was broken in the 53rd minute when Falcao emphatically buried Young's left-wing delivery with a bullet header for his second United goal and his first since October.
It was a foothold back into the game for van Gaal's team and they were gifted a significant advantage in controversial circumstances with a third of the game remaining.
Young and Agbonlahor hurtled towards one another as they vied for a 50/50 challenge, yet it was the former who was left crumpled in a heap and Mason reacted by reaching for his red card, leaving Agbonlahor and the Villa Park crowd stunned.
Villa battled on and twice they almost snatched an unlikely lead as Ciaran Clark and Andreas Weimann threatened within seconds of one another as the ball pinballed around the United area.
At the other end, Jores Okore came to Villa's rescue with 12 minutes remaining when he hooked a Michael Carrick header off the line from substitute Angel Di Maria's corner.
It was the visitors who found themselves clinging on, however, with substitute Leandro Bacuna driving inches over the crossbar as full-time approached.