With Manchester United facing Aston Villa at Old Trafford on Tuesday, I posed several questions to members of the Heroes & Villains Forum. Read Stretford End Arising’s match preview: Manchester United vs. Aston Villa.
Stretford End Arising: What are your thoughts on Tuesday’s game? What team is Gerard Houllier likely to select and what formation will he adopt? Where will the game be won or lost?
TheBentman: I’m expecting a 4-3-3: Back four of Walker, Dunne, Collins and Clark. Midfield three of Makoun Petrov and Downing with Ashley Young, Darren Bent and Gabby Agbonlahor. Gabby doesn’t look the greatest out wide but I think Houllier will favour him over Albrighton. I think we have turned the corner and that we now have a pretty decent side. However, as we have seen in recent matches Man United have a great deal of resilience and two marvelous strikers in Hernandez and Berbatov. I think we might go ahead but we will see a fightback from Man U leading us to lose 2 or 3 goals to one.
Hawkeye: Will be more than happy with a draw, but if your guys hit form then we could take a beating, worryingly you have not lost without playing great but at some point I guess it will click, just hope it isnt on tuesday. Impossible to tell what Houlier will do, every team selection has had a surprise element to it. I guess it will be 4-5-1 Friedel Walker Collins Dunne Clark-Downing NRC Petrov Young Agbonlahor Bent. Our left back situation is a problem in that Clark is a centre half so expect Nanni to have a run at him. Gabby will probably play on the left to cover. Although I would like him to be up against Vidic.
The Man With A Stick: Despite winning last year, I’d be well happy with a draw. United look like champions again this year and not many teams will get anything up there. Can see Cuellar playing at right back, Clark at left back with the rejuvenated Collins and Dunne in the middle.
SEA: Your thoughts on Villa’s transfer activity during January? The transfer fee paid for Bent, money well spent? Surprised by the signing? Initial thoughts on Makoun? Why has Randy Lerner allowed Houllier to splash the cash? Why the short stay for Stephen Ireland?
TB: I’m delighted. I have wanted us to sign Bent for years and he can be the prolific goalscorer we have lacked since we sold your lot Yorke. Makoun started brightly against Wigan but tired and lost his bite after the yellow card. The jury is still out on him but I’m positive on the whole. Kyle Walker who we have loaned from Spurs seems pretty tidy too especially going forward. If we add Bradley to the mix then we have had a decent window where we have strengthened in key areas.
I think the cash has always been there but signing Bent may have been a reaction to the trouble we have had scoring goals this season. Maybe the talk of him being a panic buy is slightly accurate but I’m not complaining.
Stephen Ireland’s problem is with his mind. I don’t think he wanted to leave Money City and that has shown in his performances which have generally been disinterested in poor. I don’t think he will find form or desire again which is sad as he is potentially one of the best players in the league if he had that.
H: It’s been pretty good, we were in trouble and the signings have lifted the club. A lot of money for Bent who I think has limitations but his scoring record speaks for itself, we have been crying out for a goal scorer since Yorke (remember him). Makoun comes with a decent pedigree. Houlier was allowed to spend because we went the whole summer without addressing the squad. Ireland didn’t want to come and has demonstrated that since he arrived, a terrible piece of business.
TMWAS: Great business all round, in and out. I think Lerner’s trusted Houllier to get the wage bill down and rewarded him with the money for Bent. Hopefully we’ll be able to offload the likes of Beye and Ireland in the summer too, if anyone’s stupid enough to match their wages.
SEA: Last time we spoke I asked whether you were pleased Martin O’Neill was no longer manager and if Houllier had made a difference. It was too soon in Houllier’s tenure to give a fair assessment was the general response. What are your thoughts on Houllier now?
TB: Had you asked me following the defeat by Sunderland I’d have told you I wanted him gone. However, from there we have turned things around. He has bought well in the transfer window and has started to notch up improved results. From the day we signed Darren Bent he has changed his demeanour. Prior to that he seemed a beaten and worn out man but now he is smiling and happy. In terms of his tenure things are looking up but we need to continue to get decent results.
H: Having got off to a bad start both on and off the pitch, he seems now to have settled the situation, he has bought new ideas and a different style of play and the squad looks a lot better, there is still some dead wood to clear but it looks more promising. Still not 100% convinced but he without doubt has the support of the owner and that’s good enough for me right now.
TMWAS: After the Sunderland defeat at Christmas, a lot of people thought that might be it, but it looks like the players have faith in him and he’s winning the fans over now. I’ve always said you can’t sack a manager without giving him a chance to put his own team in place.
SEA: We also discussed several youngsters including Barry Bannan, Marc Albrighton, Gary Gardner, Nathan Delfouneso, Ciaran Clark and Eric Lichaj. How are they progressing? Are there any other young players emerging from the ranks?
TB: Nathan Baker has emerged from the reserves. A few years back he seemed an even better prospect than Clark but he faded badly. Recently, he seems to have improved and impressed the coaches enough to get first team chances. He is a centre half by trade but has been played at left back. A big lad (6ft3) he has really impressed with his pace and delivery from full back against Wigan and Blackburn. However, he is suspended for Tuesday.
In terms of the others you mention Ciaran Clark is really starting to stake a claim and should move across to left back on Tuesday. Gary Gardner is back in action for the reserves and should be making a claim for the first team soon. Guys like Hogg (who is now on loan), Bannan and Delfouneso have suffered from players returning to fitness. Bannan is going to be a big star if he reaches even half of his potential but he isn’t getting as many first team chances. Same goes for Albrighton. I’d pick the pair ahead of Downing and Gabby but as long as we keep winning Houllier can do whatever he pleases.
TMWAS: All coming on nicely, they’ve had no choice as they’ve all been thrown in at the deep end at various points this season and every single one has performed admirably. You can add Baker, Herd and Hogg to the list as well. I hope Gardner gets a few games before the end of the season. Isaiah Osbourne is the pick of the bunch though; you should have a word with Fergie about him.
H: Bannan is a real prospect, Albrighton is raw but has proved good enough to be a PL player. Gardner yet to make a first team start but many who watch him are very excited. Delfounso looks promosing but too early to tell, Lichaj has had a few games but needs more time. Nathan Baker has impressed at left back but again is a centre half. Our reserves beat Arsenal reserves 10-1 the other week so it looks like there is talent coming through. How many will make it is another thing.
SEA: Are you concerned by relegation? Or do you believe Villa have enough quality to avoid an end of season battle?
TB: I wasn’t one of those who were running around screaming that we were doomed earlier this season but I did start to doubt after Sunderland. As I’ve said though, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Results have improved and we have pulled up the table and we have also had a good trading period so I’m starting to think we will be well safe. The prevailing mood in the last week on here has been less one of a relegation battle and more of a late push for Europe. I see us more in mid-table but with a good foundation for next season.
H: Three weeks ago, very, but the new signings and 3 wins on the trot have changed that. There are a lot worse teams in the PL than us. We will be OK.
TMWAS: Not worried at all. Fairly sure we’ll finish in the top half, which i’d have taken after that turncoat walked out on us in August.