Match Preview: Aston Villa vs. Manchester United

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By Richard Evans

Introduction

Manchester United travel to Villa Park on Saturday evening, hoping to get December off to the best possible start with a vital three points.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s men know only victory will do, as league leaders Manchester City entertain Norwich, and it is imperative that United stay hot on their heels as the league approaches one of its most hectic periods.

Villa Park has been a happy hunting ground for United down the years, and such has been the Reds’ superiority, that Villa haven’t beaten them at home in the league since August 1995. Since then, the Villains have only emerged triumphant in this encounter once, when Gabriel Agbonlahor’s glanced header earned them a shock 1-0 win at Old Trafford.

Last season United suffered a major scare at Villa Park, finding themselves 2-0 down with only 10 minutes remaining. Goals from Marc Albrighton and Ashley Young had put a youthful Villa side in a commanding position, and it looked as though Man United’s unbeaten run was about to come to an end. However, Federico Macheda’s rasping drive reduced the arrears, before Nemanja Vidic steered a powerful header past Brad Friedel to send the travelling fans wild.

United go in to the game on the back of an embarrassing home defeat to Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup, after  Ferguson opted for youth over experience. Coupled with draws against Newcastle and Benfica, United haven’t won in three, meaning victory is of utmost importance.

Villa host the Champions in indifferent form after drawing with Swansea, and being played off the park by Tottenham, going down 2-0. They last won in the league on the 5th November when they saw off Norwich, thanks to two goals from Darren Bent and one from Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Team Selection Thoughts

Wholesale changes will be made from the team that started against Crystal Palace with United expected to return to full strength. David De Gea, who has impressed in recent weeks, is likely to return in goal, with the Reds looking to build on their impressive away record of only three conceded on their travels in six games.

Across the back four, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, and Patrice Evra look set to return, whilst the right back spot will either be filled by Phil Jones or Chris Smalling. Smalling was a shining beacon on Wednesday night in the defeat to Crystal Palace and despite Jones’ encouraging start to the season, Sir Alex may feel that Smalling’s performance warrants a start on Saturday.

Ashley Young’s return to fitness has proved timely and he could start against his old club as he goes back to Villa Park for the first time. The winger was instrumental in Villa’s 2-2 draw in this fixture last season and will be out to prove a point against his former employers.

On the other wing Nani will probably be preferred to Antonio Valencia who completed a gruelling 120 minutes on Wednesday night, so he will probably be rested for next week’s crunch Champions League tie against Basel. Like Valencia, Ji Sung Park completed a full 120 minutes so he is unlikely to feature.

In the centre of the park, Michael Carrick will probably be handed the task of controlling the tempo of the game for United. The midfielder has had resurgence in form in the last couple of weeks, earning praise from the manager after a dominant display against Swansea. He could be partnered by the hard working Darren Fletcher, whose energy will be key in helping United win the ball back and recycle it effectively. Alternatively, the evergreen Ryan Giggs could return to the starting line up if Ferguson opts for some more experience, although his calming influence may well be needed in midweek.

The strikers virtually pick themselves, with Michael Owen, Danny Welbeck and Dimitar Berbatov all set to miss the trip to the midlands. Therefore Wayne Rooney will lead the line alongside Javier Hernandez. The pacy Mexican has been scoring for fun, netting goals against Newcastle, Swansea and Everton although the same can’t be said for Rooney. This can partly be put down to his deeper position on the pitch in recent weeks, although his lack of goals must be a slight concern for Sir Alex. Rooney has found the net at Villa Park down the years though, and he and United fans alike will be hoping he can find his shooting boots to help fire United to victory.

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

I anticipate we will set out quite defensively. Against Spurs we went with Alan Hutton in wide midfield ahead of Carlos Cuellar and I wouldn’t be too surprised if we went with something like that again. Emile Heskey will definitely start too. This season our tactics seem to be based more on stopping the opposition’s strengths rather than targeting their weaknesses so unless your side have a weakness for being bored to death or cannot deal with aimless long punts from the centre half I doubt we will be exploiting many weaknesses.

We will adopt a 9-0-1 formation and try to exploit your defence falling about laughing at our inept ‘hoof it to Heskey and hope’ tactic allowing Bent to nick one near the end.

Creativity and Rio Ferdinand are United’s main weaknesses. Will McLeish look to exploit these? Probably not.

2011-12 Season

Aston Villa are not doing too badly. Villa are currently eighth, which is where we are about ability wise in the squad. My main issue is with the fact we’ve had a pretty easy run so far and next month we face a pretty tough run of fixtures so we probably won’t be eighth come Christmas. By the end of the season I expect we will be in mid-table. Eighth at best and maybe twelfth at worst. Anything below that and it will be a poor season. It definitely won’t be an exciting season though.

To summarise: reasonable results, largely rubbish opponents, delivered with no flair. We could finish about eighth, but only if we tried, which we won’t.

Alex McLeish

At the time, I was not really concerned about where McLeish had came from but rather his brand of football. Last season, I felt Birmingham City were by far the worst footballing side in the league (whatever the wrongs of Stoke’s football at least they aimed to score goals). However, I did think at the time that could have been down to the small budget he had to deal with and had he been backed more he could have built a better side that played better football. So far we are playing a pretty poor standard of football which is disappointing. I do think McLeish likes to play negative football due to a deep fear of losing. Hopefully, we will get better as time goes on.

Barry Bannan

Bannan was suspended from the club, but he is back in the fold now. McLeish’s tactics is another reason why he (the same applies with Stephen Ireland) isn’t playing in my opinion. The manager tends not to hold a place for players of Bannan’s ilk. Not big enough, not dirty enough.

Bannan won’t be playing on Saturday because Emile Heskey offers so much more in midfield. Oh yes. It’s like watching Roberto Baggio in his prime as he sprays passes around. The big man really is a legend.

I don’t think McLeish likes picking young players partly due to his fear of losing. In spite of some poor performances from players who have been given multiple chances (Hutton, Heskey, Collins, Warnock and N’Zogbia being the standout examples) youngsters like Bannan, Albrighton, Gardner and Clark haven’t been getting chances.

Gabriel Agbonlahor

Agbonlahor has improved this season for a number of reasons. First of all, he was never happy under Gerard Houllier who seemed to have a novel approach to man management which involved alienating half the first team squad (though in all honesty Agbonlahor would have been the only player who you would consider any great loss) and is benefiting from playing under McLeish a manager who clearly rates him. Agbonlahor has always been a great player and he has improved each season and we’re seeing that again now that he’s got over the confidence and injury issues that dogged him last season. Without Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, Agbonlahor has been able to become our key player by playing the roles that they would have played in the past as he has moved into wider positions this season.

Three Key Battles

Nemanja Vidic vs. Darren Bent

When the Serbian is fit United’s defence looks so much more assured, but he will have to be at his best if he is to keep Darren Bent quiet. The striker only needs one chance to punish a team and if he is presented with a clear sight of goal, the Reds’ will be in trouble. However if Nemanja can keep tabs on Bent then United can concentrate on scoring goals.

Javier Hernandez vs. Richard Dunne

The lively striker’s movement will be key for United and Richard Dunne is sure to be in for a difficult game. If the Red Devils can get the ball wide and deliver decent balls into the box then Hernandez is likely to get on the end of one of them. He’s definitely on form too, after scoring in his last two away league matches and will be hoping to maintain this scoring record.

Ashley Young vs. Alan Hutton

The United winger will be looking to make an impact on his return to Villa Park, and Hutton could be in for a tricky afternoon if Young can replicate the form he showed earlier on in the season. The Villa right back likes a tackle, so he could find himself in trouble if he doesn’t get to grips with the United winger properly. If Carrick and Fletcher can get the ball wide early, then Young can have a big influence on the game.

Summary

Sir Alex Ferguson will impress upon his players the significance of three points and the opportunity to put an end to the sequence of three matches without a win. Villa haven’t exactly set the league a light and are weaker this season without the threat of Young and Downing on the wings. Consequently, I think United will have too much for Villa and should make the trip back up North with three valuable points, despite it looking a tricky tie on paper.

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