Two bruising encounters inside four days held the propensity to leave their mark on Manchester United; the concern being more of the abstract than physical, despite the aggressive approach displayed by Stoke City and West Ham United. Yet, with four points secured in the past week against anything but passive opponents, Sir Alex Ferguson has every reason to feel pleased with his team’s work. Pretty United’s form is not, but it is championship winning stuff.
Ferguson’s side should take another step towards Premier League glory with victory over Aston Villa on Monday night, although United’s inclination for ‘doing it the hard way’ ensures that there could yet be more drama to come this season. This shouldn’t be the case against relegation-threatened Villa, but in hubris there is always danger.
Still, while United’s performance at West Ham was, in keeping with a recent theme, somewhat underwhelming, Ferguson had little but praise for his players. Little wonder the encomium; in a brutal encounter, the Scot’s team stood up to the physical challenge, and twice came from behind to earn a crucial point.
“The team were fantastic the other night in terms of standing,” said Ferguson, whose team could yet seal the title against Villa on Monday
“It’s the type of game you get with Big Sam’s teams. We had to deal with it and I think a point was well deserved. We maybe could have won it in the last 20 minutes when we had all the play and one or two chances.
“Nonetheless you have to be satisfied coming back after being down twice and getting a point. The last two away games have shown how determined we are to win the league. I’ve admired my team in these games. We’ve done very well.”
Villa pose a different challenge again, with Paul Lambert’s young side finding some form at just the right time. Three victories in the past five Premier League matches has proffered the Birmingham side hope, although the draw with Fulham last weekend could yet prove damaging.
Yet, Lambert’s side has won four times on the road this season, scoring 20 goals in the process. That’s as many wins as Everton, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea, and just three goals short of Arsenal’s record away from the Emirates. Villa pose a genuine threat to United’s short-term ambitions.
Still, United boasts a healthy range of options for Villa’s trip north, with only Ashley Young and Paul Scholes definitely out of the game. Meanwhile, Nemanja Vidić has recovered from his encounter with Geordie forward Andy Carroll.
Tom Cleverley could earn a recall in midfield, while Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie should start in attack despite recently speculation about the Scouser’s future.
“Every game now seems to be more important than the last one, when you get nearer to that line that’s the way it is,” adds Ferguson.
“I have the same squad for Monday and hopefully we’ll pick the right team. We’ve got a few bumps and bruises from Wednesday. Vidić had got a beautiful bruise on his cheekbone and after coming out of that war zone, we’re quite happy no-one was seriously injured.
“Ashley is out for the season. It’s unfortunate and it’s a bad blow. We thought it’d be maybe two or three weeks but now he’s been down to the specialist. The prognosis was not very good at all. We’re going to lose him for the rest of the season.”
Meanwhile, the visitors arrive on the cusp, with just a three point cushion ahead of Wigan Athletic and the bottom three. The Latics’ back-to-back defeats against Manchester City and West Ham offers Villa hope, although Lambert will look at a fixture list that includes matches against United, Sunderland, Chelsea and Norwich City with some trepidation. The final day clash with Wigan at the DW Stadium could yet be pivotal.
Injuries to Craig Gardner, Chris Herd, Mark Albrighton, and Richard Dunne do little to help Villa’s cause.
The midlanders’ trouble – and potential salvation – stems from a more realistic assessment of the club’s financial situation by owner Randy Learner. Far from splashing out millions on star names such as Darren Bent, the American has underwritten a refocused investment in Villa’s youth academy in the past two years. It is a policy that Ferguson, unsurprisingly, supports.
“Young people give you a future by creating a strong blend that can last for a few years,” said Sir Alex.
“Young players will always remember the manager who gave them their first start. The team will improve because of that, I am sure of it. Paul had the courage to do it and even if they were to go down, Villa have a structure that should bring them right back up. But on the evidence of what we’ve seen recently they’ve every chance of staying up anyway.”
United’s focus is at the other end of the table, of course. Four United victories in succesion against the Villans suggests that the points, and title 20, are not far away.
Manchester United v Aston Villa – Premier League, Old Trafford – 8pm, 22 April 2013
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Rafael, Jones, Ferdinand, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Nani; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Evans, Powell, Scholes, Anderson, Giggs, Kagawa, Hernández, Welbeck
Aston Villa (4-3-3): Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Bennett, Baker; N’Zogbia, Westwood, Delph; Agbonlahor, Benteke, Weimann. Subs from: Given, Clark, El Ahmadi, Holman, Sylla, Dawkins, Bent, Bowery
Referee: A Taylor
Assistants: S Long and D England
Fourth official: N Swarbrick
Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Villa 1, Draw 3
Overall: United 92, Villa 49, Draw 38
- United came from behind twice to draw 2-2 with West Ham in midweek, thanks to goals from Antonio Valencia and Robin van Persie;
- After a period of drought van Persie has now scored in two Premier League games running, breathing life into the race for the Golden Boot race – the Dutchman has 21 compared to Luis Suarez’ 22 goals;
- van Persie has been the more efficient of the pair, taking just 5.52 shots per goal compared to Suarez’s 7.4;
- Despite van Persie’s recent drought, United boasts three of the top five players in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for minutes per goal or assists this season;
- Hernández leads the rankings, averaging a goal or assist every 71 minutes this season, while van Persie is ranked third with one every 84 minutes, and Rooney fifth with a goal or assit every 93 minutes;
- At the other end Patrice Evra won eight tackles against West Ham, more than any other player in the matches taking place last week – Evra’s has won more tackles than any other United player this season;
- Villa defender Ron Vlaar has caught the eye this season, with 51 attempted tackles, giving away just six fouls, at a rate of 8.5 tackles per foul conceded, the best in the Index;
- Charles N’Zogbia scored for Villa against Fulham, just his second of the season, although he’s been more prolific at creating chances, clocking up six assists – one every 170 minutes;
- Fabien Delph attempted 12 tackles against Fulham, more than any other player in the last round of games and just one short of the Index record for tackles attempted in a game this season;
- Nathan Baker made 27 defensive contributions last weekend, including a tackles, clearance, interception or block, every 3 minutes 20 seconds.