Title race takes more twists
Sir Alex Ferguson and Martin O'Neill walked off Villa Park with glasses half-empty - only to reach the dressing room and find this most unpredictable of Premier League seasons offering them a refreshing refill.
Ferguson will have felt Manchester United's superiority, even with 10 men after Nani's deserved red card, made the draw against Aston Villa an opportunity missed. Chelsea's defeat at Everton may just have transformed this into a point gained.
O'Neill will have suffered the same emotions about Villa's top four aspirations following the failure to take advantage of United in reduced circumstances until he was cheered by defeats for Liverpool and Tottenham.
Throw in Arsenal's mini-revival with that win against Liverpool at the Emirates and it was confirmation that the only thing that can be relied upon in the Premier League this season is its unreliability. Drawing quick conclusions is a dangerous occupation.
If there is something you can put a hefty stake on it is the form of Wayne Rooney - and he was almost the complete player at Villa Park. Almost, only because a late save from Brad Friedel denied him the goal that would have crowned a masterclass.
Rooney is always prepared to do the work of at least two men. And so it proved as he took it upon himself to make up for the loss of Nani, sent off for a lunge at Stilyan Petrov that was more plain daft than malicious.
I asked O'Neill what he most admired about United's display on a night when they showed ominous control after suffering the numerical disadvantage. After pointing out that "admired" was not the word he would choose to describe what he actually experienced, he delivered a heartfelt eulogy to Rooney.
No introductions or names were needed as he said: "The centre-forward they possess is one of the best players in the world. His ability to control a ball under pressure is terrific and his ability is sensational."
O'Neill then highlighted one incident that encapsulated the essence of Rooney, the current desire allied to discipline that make his absence unthinkable for both Manchester United and England.
With the game entering its crucial closing phase, Rooney left his attacking post and raced back into the left-back position to challenge and win a tackle with Ashley Young in a moment that had even the Villa fans showing their appreciation.
Rooney races back to tackle Ashley Young
"He's made the challenge like a full-back," enthused O'Neill. "He wasn't going to be beaten, and all that happened with about eight minutes to go. I've got a lot of players at this club who can definitely play this game, but that was as good an example as anything you will see."
United's menacing pursuit of Chelsea is helped by Ferguson, who ignored the natural caution many would exercise after losing a player by throwing on extra attacking resources in the shape of Antonio Valencia and Dimitar Berbatov in an attempt to claim the victory.
Ferguson will hope the point has not come at too much cost. Nani's ban rules him out of the Carling Cup final, but of even more concern was the sight of Ryan Giggs leaving Villa Park for an X-ray on an arm injury.
Villa barely laid a glove on United after Nani was sent off, although the debilitating effect of the Portuguese winger's tackle on Petrov robbed the home side of much-needed creativity. Rich promise was offered, however, in the shape of Fabian Delph as he excelled before tiring around the hour mark. And four points from United this season is a more than respectable return.
Few could have predicted Chelsea's loss at Goodison Park, given their show of strength against Arsenal at the weekend and Everton's lame effort at Liverpool - but this is a season of surprises, and the Premier League is all the better for that.
Chelsea have looked formidable for large portions of the season, but they will feel United's breath on their neck as the season enters its final lap. Ferguson, however, must pray no misfortune befalls Rooney because it becomes clearer with every passing week that he is pivotal to their hopes of becoming champions for the fourth successive year.
Arsene Wenger's elated, animated reaction at the conclusion of their win against Liverpool suggested he believes what many regarded as some form of Premier League third-place play-off has rejuvenated their own challenge.
Wenger was desperate for three points to reassert Arsenal's authority after morale-sapping defeats against Manchester United and Chelsea - although whether it represents anything more than a brief false dawn remains to be seen. The eternal optimist in Arsenal's manager will demand otherwise.
For Liverpool, elation against Everton was replaced by frustration. Suddenly, Rafael Benitez's "guarantee" of fourth place is under scrutiny once more. If it was ultimately a good night, of sorts, for Villa, it was an even better one for Manchester City.
The Premier League's eccentricity this season has been frowned upon by those who believe it betrays a lack of quality and consistency. There is merit in this theory, but the twists and turns more than make up for those accusations.
Take a trip up and down the table and excitement is everywhere - with West Ham's win against Birmingham ratcheting up the pressure on their closest contenders in the fight against relegation.
It is a drama with several acts still to be played out - but on the evidence produced at Villa Park on Wednesday, Rooney is now emerging as the central character.