Match Preview: Aston Villa vs. Manchester United

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By Richard Evans

Introduction

Manchester United travel to Villa Park on Saturday evening, looking for a vital three points that will keep them top of the Premier League table.

Last weekend the Reds once again saw off Arsenal at Old Trafford with the result not reflecting United’s dominance. Indeed Sir Alex Ferguson’s men could have notched up five or six goals on another day, although three points was all that mattered, consolidating, and building upon, the win at the Bridge the week before.

Both of those wins against potential title rivals mean that the Red Devils have won eight out of their last nine league games, propelling them to the summit of the table for the first time this season.

Perhaps more poignant however is the fact that United have played some difficult games already, yet sit above everyone else in the league. Tricky trips to Everton, Newcastle, Liverpool and Chelsea have been negotiated with three wins out of four, and the Reds have a brilliant chance to cement their position.

Having said that, Aston Villa will offer a test to the Reds, and their confidence will have been boosted after a very good win at the Stadium of Light last weekend.

However the Villains won’t exactly be looking forward to the prospect, especially when you consider how Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have fared at Villa Park in recent seasons.

The Reds haven’t lost away at Villa in the league since 1995, an astonishing 17 years ago, and given how prolific United have been this season, there is every chance that the record will continue.

Last season at Villa Park the Red Devils secured all three points, as a composed volley from Phil Jones earned the travelling Reds a much needed 1-0 win. A carbon copy of that result would be more than adequate, bearing in mind that this is the second of four away games in a row.

Team Selection Thoughts

David de Gea has been in great form for United recently and after being maligned in the media for a couple of mistakes, he has answered his critics in style. The young Spaniard has made a string of fine saves in the past few matches, with one particular standing out. De Gea reacted superbly to keep out a close range header at the Bridge to help United on their way to three points, and he was very unlucky not to keep a clean sheet against Arsenal last week. At least United have a settled number one for the time being however, and results, coincidence or not, have started to improve with the same keeper starting week in week out. With Lindegaard returning from injury this could change, although it would be disadvantageous to make unnecessary changes.

In defence, the Red Devils have been boosted by the return of Chris Smalling to first team action, with the classy England international featuring against Braga on Wednesday night. With Phil Jones set to return to the fold soon as well, Sir Alex finally has some options in the centre of defence, and the return of both Smalling and Jones comes at a vital time, considering the hectic fixture schedule as winter approaches. Jonny Evans is a slight doubt after picking up an injury in Braga, but if passed fit he will start alongside Rio Ferdinand, with the impressive Rafael and improving Evra starting at right and left back respectively. The energetic pair give the Reds superb attacking options, and when they are on song defensively, United play with so much more vim and vigour.

Even though Shinji Kagawa remains sidelined with the knee injury he sustained against Braga, the Reds have a wealth of options in midfield. Anderson is back in contention along with Darren Fletcher, giving Sir Alex a real selection headache. It is likely that the duo of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley will continue there however, with Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs used sparingly, and only called upon when experience is needed. Antonio Valencia, who has four assists already this season, looks set to continue marauding down the right flank. Nani has been ruled out for up to 10 days with a tight hamstring, meaning Ashley Young should start against his former club. The winger will want to impress in front of the fans that once worshipped him and Nani’s injury gives him the perfect chance.

Robin van Persie has started eight games in the league for United this season and has scored eight times. He came off the bench to equalise on Wednesday and set the Reds on their way against Arsenal. To say he has settled in well would be an understatement, and it seems that he and Wayne Rooney are really starting to strike up an understanding. When they both play, goals are virtually guaranteed, and with Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck waiting in the wings, the Red Devils look a formidable force going forward.

Opposition View

Here, at Stretford End Arising we spoke to members of Heroes and Villains and asked their thoughts on the upcoming game and more:

Saturday’s Match

Saturday is a game that has come at the wrong time for Villa as a team. Having picked up a valuable 3 points last week away at Sunderland a different game could have provided us with another win and improve the confidence level amongst our young squad still learning the pressures of Premier League football. However, if we beat United, there would be no better boost of confidence, yet lose heavily and it’s back to square one.

Regarding formation, Lambert seems to play the midfield very tight, with two anchor men, one a little bit more forward centrally with two forwards alongside. Karim El Ahmadi is expected to replace Ashley Westwood, which could be a mistake following Westwood’s performance against Sunderland alongside Bannan, who himself isn’t a 100% starter.

Summer signing Benteke is a big and strong forward, who is in a rich vein of form. He will look to bully United’s central defenders, with the aim of leaving space for the likes of Agbonlahor and Ireland to exploit.  If Bent starts the encounter on the bench again, then he’ll be used in the final 30 minutes or so, with the intention of grabbing a late goal.

2012-13 Season

The start to the campaign has been pretty poor in all honesty, yet this was always going to be another season of transition.

Lambert is our third new manager in three successive seasons and with the mess left behind by O’Neill still being cleared up, he has to be given time to assemble a squad. The payers he is bringing in are all, in his words, ‘young and hungry’, and with most of them with no Premier League experience it will obviously take a bit of time to gel.

Regarding expectations, it will be a win one, lose one pattern this term and most would be happy with a top half finish.

The Manager

Lambert has endured a difficult start to life as Villa manager. There have been a few mutterings, but most fans are prepared to give him time, as he does at least seem to have a plan, which sets him apart from the previous managers.  He was always going to receive a decent honeymoon period following the sacking of the abysmal McLeish.  He seems to prefer a passing game, based on a team full of young, mainly lower league players who have a big appetite to do well.  He showed this at Norwich of course, but it’s a very risky strategy and so far the results have been poor.  If we avoid relegation, then hopefully he’ll push on and take us back towards the top 6 where we feel we belong.

Three Key Battles

Robin van Persie vs. Ciaran Clark

As previously mentioned van Persie is in stunning form for Manchester United, and he will be looking to score his twelfth goal of the season come Saturday evening. For Villa to have a chance of recording a positive result they will have to keep the prolific Dutchman quiet, and Clark will be given the task of subduing him. The ex Arsenal front man has not had any problems scoring against the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool this season, so Clark will have to have an exceptional game to thwart him.

Christian Benteke vs. Rio Ferdinand

The striker has only scored twice in the league this season, however his pace and power will cause Ferdinand problems at Villa Park. Rio is not as quick as he once was, relying on his positioning to snuff out danger, but Benteke is a clever player, using his movement to create himself space, and consequently chances. The only problem for him will be if Villa’s midfield fail to get enough possession.

Wayne Rooney vs. Ron Vlaar

With van Persie putting the ball in the net for the Red Devils, the pressure has been somewhat taken off Rooney, allowing him to become more creative. His slightly deeper role has allowed him to create five goals in his last five games and if he’s allowed space he will revel in that position once again on Saturday. Vlaar will be unsure whether to follow Rooney higher up the pitch, potentially giving Van Persie more space. Either way United will look to exploit any frailties in the Villa back four and they could be exposed if they are not switched on.

Summary

Villa Park has been a happy hunting ground for the Reds in the Premier League down the years, and they have only lost twice there in 20 seasons. Villa are currently struggling, sitting one place above the relegation zone, and with United in form there is no reason to expect anything other than a win for Sir Alex’s men. However if the current league leaders arrive with any complacency, they will find it difficult, especially if the Villa Park faithful get behind their team.

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