Aston Villa vs Manchester United Match Preview
After securing qualification into the knockout stages of the Champions League courtesy of a fortunate 3-1 win in Braga on Wednesday night, the Reds travel to Villa Park to take on Aston Villa on Saturday evening as they look to win their fifth consecutive game in the Premier League.
After picking up maximum points from games against Newcastle, Chelsea and Arsenal in the last month and going top of the table last weekend, United will be eager to carry on their good run of form and take home all three points from the Midlands. Once again, the manager opted to rest a number of players in midweek as he seeks to keep the squad fresh and we could see a number of players recalled this weekend.
David de Gea – who celebrated his 22nd birthday on Wednesday – has cemented his role as United’s number one with a string of impressive performances over the last month and should take his place between the sticks on Saturday. Rafael received a much-deserved break on Wednesday night and should return at right-back whilst a seemingly revitalised Patrice Evra, who’s returned to something approaching his best over the last month, will start at left-back. Rio Ferdinand also celebrated his birthday (34) on Wednesday and should partner Jonny Evans at the back, assuming Evans recovers from a slight knock that forced him to be substituted against Braga. One of the biggest positives of the Braga game was the return of Chris Smalling from injury. Although he looked rusty – understandable after being out for so long – his return is a big plus, giving United some much-needed defensive cover.
In midfield, it appears that both Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick will reprise their partnership that has shown encouraging signs in the last two games after both were rested on Wednesday night. However, Paul Scholes could also be in the manager’s thoughts having not been involved in any of the Reds last 5 games; the manager this week assuring fans that Scholes wasn’t injured and that United were simply taking the opportunity to give the soon-to-be 38 year-old (Scholes turns 38 next Friday) an extended break before the busy Christmas period.
I expect Antonio Valencia will start on the right-wing on Saturday with Ashley Young – who will surely face a hostile reception from the Villa fans having been castigated by them for supposedly diving to win a penalty in the Reds 4-0 win over them at Old Trafford last season – on the opposite side. None of United’s wingers are in great form at the moment with Ashley Young still feeling his way back from injury, Nani seemingly disaffected and in the manager’s bad books and Antonio Valencia a shadow of his second-half of last season self.
Despite another goal for Javier Hernandez against Braga – the Mexican now has 5 goals in the last 5 games – it would come as a surprise if Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie don’t start up front against Villa. After scoring against both Arsenal and Braga, the Dutchman now has 11 goals in 11 starts for the club making a mockery out of those who’d suggested that van
Persie wouldn’t reach double figures for United this season. If he carries on in this type of form, £24 million will look like a bargain.
Predicted XI: De Gea, Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra, Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Young, Rooney, van Persie
Since taking over in the summer, Paul Lambert has failed to achieve much of a turnaround in Villa’s fortunes with the Villans only managing two victories in their opening 10 games. Consequently, they find themselves sitting 17th in the table with 9 points; a far cry from the 3 consecutive years between 2007/08 and 2009/10 under Martin O’Neill’s stewardship. In each of those years, Villa finished in 6th place, thereby securing Europa League qualification whilst they also reached the Carling Cup Final in 2009/10 only for goals from Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney to hand United victory over the Villans. Remarkably, many Villa fans criticised O’Neill for not securing Champions League qualification in those years, saying ‘he’d taken them as far as he could’. Since O’Neill’s departure in the summer of 2010, it’s all been downhill for Villa. As the old adage goes, ‘you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone’.
Lambert took the brave decision of dropping Shay Given for Brad Guzan early in the season and the American shot-stopper has repaid his manager’s faith, his performances one of the few bright spots for Villa so far this season. Defensively, Villa have been poor, something that’s understandable considering they’re relying – with the exception of Dutchman Ron Vlaar – on a number of young players with limited Premier League experience. Nathan Baker and Chris Herd are injury doubts for this weekend’s game.
It’s weird to think that just 3 years ago, Villa had a midfield consisting of James Milner, Gareth Barry, Stilyan Petrov and Ashley Young. Whilst none are world-beaters, they’re a class above Villa’s current crop of midfielders featuring City reject Stephen Ireland and drink-driver Barry Bannan amongst other household names… Alex McLeish’s dull brand of football never encouraged the best out of the few genuinely attacking players Villa possess with Charles N’Zogbia flopping since joining them from Wigan and Marc Albrighton failing to develop as one would have expected when he first broke into the Villa first team.
Up front however, Villa do possess players who could cause the Reds defence problems on Saturday. Belgian international, Christian Benteke, has two Premier League goals to his name since arriving from Genk this summer and, although raw, looks to have all the attributes – pace, power and clinical finishing – to become a fans favourite at Villa Park. Gabriel Agbonlahor, like Albrighton, hasn’t developed as one may have envisaged although he has been unlucky with injuries over the last couple of seasons. However, he’s shown brief glimpses of returning to his best form and scored the winner at Sunderland last weekend – his first Premier League goal in 28 matches. Mystifyingly, Lambert has chosen to leave Darren Bent on the bench over the last few weeks. Although he’s repeatedly denied rumours of a falling-out with the club’s record signing, it seems strange to leave Bent out considering he is a proven Premier League goalscorer having scored goals regularly throughout his career.
Predicted XI: Guzan, Bennett, Vlaar, Clark, Lowton, Holman, Bannan, Ireland, Westwood, Agbonlahor, Benteke
United will be eager to secure all 3 points once again at Villa Park where they have a remarkably good record having won 12 and lost 2 of the last 20 Premier League encounters between the two sides at Villa Park. Last year, despite dominating possession and creating a hatful of chances, the Reds could only convert one; Phil Jones lovely sidefoot volley enough to send United home with all three points.
Villa Park therefore is a place most United fans have fond memories of: myself included. I remember travelling there as a wide-eyed 10 year-old for the 2004 FA Cup semi-final when a Paul Scholes thunderbolt gave an under-strength United side victory against Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ in a fantastic game whilst I was also present for United’s rip-roaring comeback from 2 down in the last 10 minutes to draw 2-2 in 2010/11 when goals from Kiko Macheda and Nemanja Vidic pulled the Reds level before Gabriel Obertan was cruelly denied a winner by Brad Friedel’s face! Let’s hope Saturday’s game is just as compelling as those games were; hopefully it’s a bit more comfortable for United though!