Manchester United entertain Aston Villa on Tuesday evening, as the reds seek to keep up their fantastic unbeaten run. They will have a tough task on their hands after a recent resurgence in form by the Villans, who will be buoyed by their last visit to Old Trafford as they ran out surprise 1-0 winners, where a simple left-field cross was met by the astute Abonglohor who somehow managed to squeeze in between Vidic and Brown to head the winner.
Man United have injury worries over Carrick, Ferdinand and Rafael as well as long-term absentee Valencia who is making a speedy recovery – and Park who presumably will be too fatigued to play a part in the game after returning from the Asian Cup.
I am predicting 11 changes to the starting line-up as Fergie will surely want to make the point that the first half offering versus the Saints (as it was indeed against Blackpool) was genuinely unacceptable for a Manchester United side – despite the fact that some of the blame can lie with the manager for meddling too much with the side.
Our strongest back four should start the game then, and having kept clean sheets in over 80% of the games they have started together, a solid defensive display is in order given the recent lapses in concentration at the back. One particular duel that could be on the cards is Rafael v Downing, as the latter made a surprise start on the left hand side (this season Downing has had something of a free role, starting from the centre, and drifting more towards the right) in the same fixture at Villa Park, giving Brown a torrid time. Rafael’s best strategy could be to pin Downing back, attacking at every opportunity, taking the battle to the youngster Clark who should start at left-back.
In midfield, Carrick and Fletcher should be restored to the centre after Anderson and Gibson in particular on Saturday, failed to retain simple possession of the ball. Scholes wasn’t much better, but rarely starts three games in a row these days, which should mean that the weekend’s ‘super subs’, Nani and Giggs, return to the right and left side of midfield respectively. Both will have to work hard defensively when without the ball, as Houllier is likely to adopt a wide and direct 4-4-2 on the counter as discussed below. Berbatov and Rooney should be restored to the starting line-up despite Hernandez’s fine form of late. Rooney will be raring to get back to playing in a more traditional role alongside Berbatov, who could be the key (see chalkboard) to restoring the former’s ‘mojo’ – in much the same way that Rooney has brought the best out of Berbatov in a luckless spell of late. Both will continue to rotate in the ‘false’ 9 role, with Berbatov perhaps spending the longer of the two in the opposition penalty area.
Berbatov keeping vital possession (click to enlarge)
Bent, the £23.8m arrival from Sunderland should start the game as the solitary striker in a 4-4-1-1 system that sees Young dropping just off the front man. Houllier has mixed his attacking approach play this season in something of a 4-2-3-1 with Downing, Abonglohor and Albrighton interchanging with some success (Chelsea away for example); However, Villa had fantastic success against United by stretching the play, utilising Downing and Albrighton on the wings (see chalkboard), and crucially on their most ‘natural’ side which allowed them to receive the ball high up the pitch and pepper the United defence with crosses. We may well see this again tomorrow, especially given that Abonglohor is a doubt having come off against Wigan at the weekend holding his hamstring.
Downing and Albrighton providing ‘traditional’ width. Downing 35% near the byline (click to enlarge)
In midfield, Petrov and Reo-Coker should form a solid central midfield pairing, and could well be tasked with replicating the strategy of the youngsters Bannan and Hogg, who started the game at Villa Park; both worked tremendously hard, pressing United high up the pitch forcing them into individual mistakes. Cuellar should get the nod over Walker due to his experience and positional acumen at the back, and Dunne and Collins should start at the heart of the defence.
Ferdinand’s return will be welcomed by Ferguson, as United have looked slightly disjointed in the last two games – and whose pace could be a real asset against the speedy and ever-diligent Darren Bent. Both teams will adopt a direct style of play, and both Young and Rooney could be the key to each side’s attacking ambitions; They will likely work across the middle third, seeking to pull the centre halves out of position allowing the wider players and fullbacks to join the attack. The game could be won and lost in central midfield however, and whoever utilises the ball most efficiently in possession, and copes with the counter-attacking threat without the ball, will be victorious.
Prediction: 2-0 to United. Berbatov and Rooney.
Referee: Chris Foy – this will be the 5th time Foy has refereed United this season, and we have not lost in any of previous four.
Highlights: Correctly awarding a penalty to West Brom as Rio left a trailing leg on Thomas.
Lowlights: Failing to spot a clear penalty as Neville brought down Dorrans as he raced into the penalty area. This would have resulted in a red card too.
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