Not since Sir Alex Ferguson’s kids crumbled in 1996 has Manchester United lost to the second City’s leading team at Villa Park – in the Premier League at least. The 3-1 loss, followed Alan Hansen’s now infamous chide, is long past, with United emerging undefeated 17 occasions in a row during the intervening years.
Indeed, there is nothing in the form of these two teams that suggests anything bar another win on the road for Ferguson’s team this Saturday, with United enjoying a spell of good results, and Villa resting just a place above the relegation zone.
Still, United’s inability to keep a clean sheet will retain Ferguson’s concern despite his side’s outstanding recent record at Villa Park, although the Midlanders have scored just five goals all season at the 115-year-old stadium. Paul Lambert’s evolution at Villa Park is taking some time to bed in, with just nine points this season, leaving only Reading, Southampton and Queens Park Rangers to prop up the Birmingham side.
Relegation will be far from Lambert’s mind, but it is now more than 16 years since Villa last won a trophy and American Randy Learner’s spell in control of the club has yielded little promise, let alone silverware. It is a recent past that has cast a cloud over one of the Football League’s founding members. Indeed, it is now history rather than the present that is the currency on which Villa primarily trades.
“They have a great history,” said Ferguson on Friday.
“It’s probably correct to say that they haven’t matched their expectations over the years. The year we won the league [in 1993] they had a good team. You wonder when managers change whether that has bigger effect than the playing standard of the team. They’ve had quite a few managers – quite a collection over the years.”
John Gregory, Martin O’Neill, Gérard Houllier, David O’Leary, and Alex McLeish have tried and variously failed to bring silverware to Villa Park since Brian Little’s outfit won the 1996 League Cup. That relegation fodder Birmingham City won the same competition in 2011 cannot sit well with Villains.
Years of failure, and United’s outstanding record at Villa Park, leaves Sir Alex unmoved – accepting complacency from his side in the Saturday tea time kick off.
“Although we have a great record at Villa Park we never take them for granted,” adds Sir Alex.
“We’ve always had to perform there. It’s been a good ground for us as a team, though, and I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s one of the old traditional grounds. There’s always a good atmosphere and the support is always fantastic. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going as it’s got us into a good position.”
United laboured to three points in Braga on Wednesday night, following the deceptive 2-1 victory over Arsenal last weekend. That was victory gained, but a match which left Ferguson feeling angry about United’s profligacy. Not for the first time this season the 70-year-old Scot reminded his players that never again should United lose the league title on goal difference.
Fortunate, then, that Ferguson has a quartet of strikers in fine form. While Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney grab the headlines, Javier Hernández has scored half-a-dozen goals in recent games. Danny Welbeck, lauded for his role last season and with England during the summer, has seemingly dropped to fourth choice.
The striking riches has Ferguson demanding United scores 100 league goals in the campaign. Cynics, it could be said, will point to the Reds’ defensive record and add that Ferguson’s side will need to do just that if United is to secure a 20th domestic league title come next May.
“It’s a healthy combination we’ve got,” said Ferguson.
“Robin has come to us at the right time, no doubt about that. He’s got us 11 goals so far. The way young Chicha has started this season, I’m certain he’ll get to 20 goals plus. The summer’s rest has helped him enormously and he’s looking fresh and aggressive in his running. Wazza will get there too, he’ll get 20 goals plus I’m sure.
“We have 15 goalscorers this year and it’s definitely helping us at the moment. I look back to that season in 2000, when we were three goal short of 100 in the Premier League. The last game was at Villa Park, when we had the opportunity to get to 100 but didn’t quite make it. It would be nice to think we could do that.”
However, Ferguson will have to do without several injured players on Saturday, including Nani who will miss 10 days with a hamstring strain. Jonny Evans has a minor groin problem, with Chris Smalling ready to play a second game in four days, while captain Nemaja Vidić will not feature before the New Year. Midfielder Shinki Kagawa misses the next month, and Phil Jones returns to full training next week.
“Nemanja is a long way off, we can forget about him until after Christmas,” admitted Ferguson.
“Jones trains with the first team on Monday with the football side, which is good, and he should be available maybe 10 days after that so things are looking better that way. We’re hoping Evans will be okay for Saturday. He’s a doubt, although not a serious one. Nani is out with a tight hamstring and that will be around 10 days but he should be okay. It’s not torn, just tight.”
Meanwhile, the host’s Karim El Ahmadi returns after suspension, but defender Eric Lichaj is banned. Defender Joe Bennett is struggling with a knee injury so Enda Stevens could, while striker Darren Bent is still out.
Whatever the injuries and suspensions the fixture is likely to prove a difficult test for a Villa side yet to find any real form this season.
“I know the task of it and the team know the task of it, but on any given day you just don’t know what can happen,” said manager Lambert.
“To beat someone like United you need a bit of luck. We also have to believe that we can win. The belief in the football team at the minute is there. We are going to have to play well against them that’s for sure.”
Playing well, let alone winning, is a feat Villa has achieve ever so rarely this season.
Aston Villa v Manchester United – Premier League, Villa Park – Saturday 10 November 2012, 5.30pm
Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Clark, Stevens; Ireland, El Ahmadi, Bannan, Weimann; Agbonlahor, Benteke. Subs from: Given, Stevens, Lichaj, Albrighton, Delph, Holman, Bowery, Westwood, Herd.
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Scholes, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Young; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Büttner, Giggs, Powell, Anderson, Cleverley, Fletcher, Nani, Hernández, Welbeck.
Referee: K Friend
Assistants: J Flynn, S Burt
Fourth Official: M Halsey
Head to Head
Last 10: Villa 1, United 6, Draw 3
Overall: Villa 49, United 91, Draw 38
- Ciaran Clark was dominant in breaking up play for Villa against Sunderland last weekend, making 30 interceptions, the most by a player in a single game all season according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Ashley Westwood displayed a fantastic work rate in covering 7.1 miles in the game, the most by a Villa player in a single game this season;
- Defenders Mathew Lowton and Ron Viaar have been standout performers lately, winning 22 and 20 tackles respectively this season;
- In Bent’s absence Gabriel Agbonlahor finally ended his run of 28 league games with a goal by scoring last weekend’s winner against Sunderland;
- Meanwhile, for United van Persie has scored eight goals from 15 shots on target in the Premier League this season, compared to Carlos Tevez’ four goals from 21 shots on target, and Darren Bent’s two goals from nine shots on target;
- van Persie striker partner Rooney covered 7.03 miles against Arsenal last weekend, the most by a United player in a single game this season;
- Michael Carrick has made the sixth most successful passes in the Premier League this season, finding a team-mate 301 times according to the Index.