Another week, another chance for Louis van Gaal to undo any good previously done. After all, Manchester United’s fine performance and excellent result in the FA Cup this week will count for little if Van Gaal’s side fails to beat Aston Villa on Saturday. The Dutchman’s side couldn’t fail, could it?
It was Manchester United’s patchy away form that eliminated any hope of challenging for the Premier League title last season, however fanciful the dream. In 19 matches at home, Louis van Gaal’s side dropped points in just five games – the third best record in the league. The Reds’ away form was bettered by six clubs though, including Southampton and Liverpool. Not good enough from a side that developed a strangely inhibiting caution on-the-road during Van Gaal’s first campaign with United. It is a record that the Dutchman hopes to correct during Friday night’s visit to Aston Villa.
In keeping with the pattern United enjoyed a victorious, if at times fortunate, start to the new season with a 1-0 home victory over Tottenham Hotspur last Saturday. The Reds’ stilted passing and slow build-up was reminiscent of so many games last season, albeit with the caveat that the side remains a little undercooked. Van Gaal’s team played just four matches in pre-season.
The club’s strengthening in defence, midfield and attack will do no harm to that imperious home record. It is the points total away from Old Trafford’s comforts that will determine whether the Reds challenge Chelsea and Manchester City for the Premier League next may. Certainly, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger stiffen United’s defensive resolve away from Manchester; Memphis Depay adds pace and goals on the break. Matteo Darmian and a newly fit Luke Shaw add genuine balance to the side from full-back.
Yet, United’s cautious outlook against Tottenham, with two defensive midfielders deployed at home, suggests Van Gaal is not yet ready to open up United’s attack. After all, the team swung from tactical inhibition to liberation with startling alacrity last season.
That cautious approach leaves Ashley Young in the side, as much for his defensive work as an attacking threat. The former Villa player created just one chance against Spurs, failed with each of six take-ons, and delivered just one accurate cross. Meanwhile, Memphis is deployed – for now – where he can do least defensive damage through the centre, and Juan Mata is restricted to a wide role that too rarely allowed the Spaniard to roam inside last weekend.
Still, the Dutchman recognises that there is a weakness in United’s results away from home, if not yet that the tactical approach may be the over-riding inhibitor. Survival, says Van Gaal, was the goal last weekend.
“The key for success this season is improving in away matches. We were one of the best last season at home, third. I want to create a fortress at Old Trafford, we did that – but away we have to improve and we can improve because last year we were not good,” admitted Van Gaal on Thursday.
“You have to survive the start always. You have new players, a new team, a new team process, the team dynamics are different, so every club and every team has to sustain this period because nobody is 100% fit. We have to pay attention to it and develop, but it cannot cost as many points as last year and that is our main objective.”
The roles taken up by Young, Mata and Memphis will do much to determine that development in the coming weeks. As, many supporters might add, could Ander Herrera. The Basque is likely to be restricted to the bench once again for United’s trip south, although his speed of passing and movement appear to be a missing ingredient.
For the moment it is Memphis that will operate just off Wayne Rooney at Villa – “more a second striker than a third midfielder,” according to Van Gaal.
Villa, meanwhile, enjoyed victory at Bournemouth on the opening day of the season; one that few pundits forecast before the game. Manager Tim Sherwood lost two key players this summer in Christian Benteke and Fabien Delph, acquiring eight new faces for a net spend of minus £6 million this summer.
Despite the Premier League’s huge broadcast revenue spike, Villa owner Randy Lerner continues practice an austere investment strategy, although, bizarrely, Sherwood was moved to praise the American this week.
“He is willing to back this football club and take us in the correct direction,” said the former Tottenham coach.
“He is not sitting on his hands, he is actively trying to do something to improve this club. It’s good the club have backed me and it needed change. We have sold a lot of players and we brought in a lot of money. The owner has not put that back in to his pocket, he has reinvested it into the squad.”
Strikers Jordan Ayew and Rudy Gestede, acquired from Lorient and Blackburn Rovers respectively, are expected to fill in for Liverpool-bound Benteke. Micah Richards is a big-name, if under-performing, capture on a free transfer from Manchester City. Slim pickings from which Sherwood must work.
By contrast Van Gaal’s resources are plentiful. It remains to be seen whether the Dutchman can extract more from his team away from Old Trafford.
Team news and line-ups
Villa subs from: Bunn, Baker, Bennett, Hutton, Steer, Senderos, Cole, N’Zogbia, Richardson, Sánchez, Kozak, Agbonlahor
United subs from: Johnstone, Evans, McNair, Herrera, Januzaj, Pereira, Schweinsteiger, Valencia, Hernández, Wilson
Van Gaal could deploy the same team that started against Tottenham last Saturday. The Dutchman is without Marouane Fellaini, who serves the second of a three match suspension, while Phil Jones is out with thrombosis. Marcos Rojo is not yet match-fit, and will not be considered, although Bastian Schweinsteiger is closer to full fitness after making his début as a substitute last weekend.
The United manager confirmed that Sergio Romero will continue in goal, with David de Gea not in the right frame of mind to play while a mooted transfer to Real Madrid remains on hold.
“No injuries – only illness for Phil Jones,” van Gaal told MUTV. “It’s very sad, of course, but we’ll have to wait and see how that shall recover. Rojo needs more time because he was the last one who came in. He is training double sessions sometimes. He is doing well but he needs more.”
Meanwhile, Rudy Gestede, Villa’s goalscorer at Bournemouth, is pushing for a start after coming off the bench to net the side’s winner on the south coast. The striker must oust long-term Villa favourite Gabriel Agbonlahor, although the presence of midfielder Daley Blind in United’s back-four could swing the decision the Frenchman’s way. Jack Grealish and Carles Gil are not yet fit to play despite returning to training this week.
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: S Bennett, S Long
Fourth Official: L Mason
Villa – 49
Draw – 39
United – 96
Villa 1 – 1 United
Villa 1-2 United
£1 bet club
Memphis to score @ 6/4
Amid the season’s most challenging run of games Manchester United’s fixture against Aston Villa this weekend has become something of an afterthought. It is little surprise. After all, this is a period in which Louis van Gaal’s side has faced Tottenham Hotpsur and Liverpool in successive weeks, with Manchester City and Chelsea to come before April is out. After fine wins over Spurs and Liverpool, Van Gaal’s side faces a Villa outfit that has won twice in the past three Premier League matches, but lost eight of the past 10. It is a game United really should win, although it has not always been beyond the wit of this side to drop points in similar matches.
Still, victory at Anfield before the international break has infused United with more confidence than at any point during a challenging campaign. United’s performance, at least for an hour, matched the pivotal nature of the game. Here, at last, was Van Gaal’s side moving the ball at speed, benefiting from participation of the squad’s most creative players, and dominating proceedings at the same time. Should United follow through on Saturday with another victory, Van Gaal’s side will be within just a few points of securing Champions League football next season.
Van Gaal retains loftier ambitions though, with the Premier League title not yet beyond United, albeit a goal, if achieved, that would require a spectacular level of combustion from leaders Chelsea over the next seven matches.
United’s coach, however, is seemingly not yet prepared to let the dream of silverware go, even if supporters have long given up hope.
“You never know. I have said at the end we shall find out,” said the Dutchman on Friday.
“When we had 30 points out of 11 matches at that time there was a lot of criticism but I said we should find out at the end of the season. Tottenham and Liverpool are still in. Of course we have dealt them a blow but we have to play against the first three. Still, we can win the title, mathematically.
“We are working day in day out and we have to see how players respond because the way I train, which I’ve explained a lot of times, is not easy for players. It’s a whole process. We started at the bottom, unconscious, capable and then your next step is conscious and incapable. And then it is conscious and capable. Maybe we are now in the last step of that process.”
Van Gaal will again be without striker Robin van Persie, who has an ongoing problem with his left ankle. The 31-year-old is likely to miss next weekend’s Manchester Derby too.
Defender Luke Shaw has recovered from a minor hamstring problem, although Chris Smalling is a doubt because of the illness that forced the defender off during England’s game against Italy in midweek.
“Robin is coming back and Luke Shaw has already had a week on there, but match rhythm is very important. You cannot compare a player who has been out for four or five weeks to those that have sufficient match rhythm,” added Van Gaal.
“We have a process for injured players in the medical department, they then go to a football coach for tests and then to me. Robin still isn’t with the football coach. He’s still not in my group. Luke Shaw is in my group, that’s different, but van Persie isn’t available.”
Marcos Rojo could return alongside Phil Jones in the centre of defence, with Shaw and the in-form Daley Blind competing for a role on the left side of defence.
Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney is likely to be deployed as a lone striker in the 4-1-4-1 system adopted by Van Gaal in recent weeks, with Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini in support. The Belgian has forced his way into Van Gaal’s side – positive form at club and international level ensures Fellaini will start at Old Trafford on Saturday. The former Evertonian also scored Belgian’s winner against Israel last week.
“When he’s been fit he’s always played for me, more or less. I can change things depending on our opponent, but at the minute I can’t change him when he’s playing like this,” admitted Van Gaal on Friday.
The visitors arrive after another difficult campaign, with former manager Paul Lambert sacked in February despite an underwhelming summer of investment in the transfer market. New manager Tim Sherwood is yet to turn the club’s fortune’s around, although the Villans have earned three wins from the past four fixtures in all competitions, including two in the Premier League. Still, with Villa just two points off the relegation zone, the Midlands club has little room left for error.
Sherwood might call on Dutch international Ron Vlaar for the first time in six weeks after the club captain recovered from a calf problem. Indeed, Sherwood’s squad is boosted by the return of Jores Okore, Joe Cole, Aly Cissokho, Kieran Richardson, Philippe Senderos and Nathan Baker, although not all are match fit. Tom Cleverly cannot play against his parent club.
“The boys are confident they can do it and there’s no better time to do it than while we’re struggling,” said Sherwood.
“I took a Tottenham team there last year and we won quite comfortably. Whether that can be emulated again, I hope so. We’ve got a lot of pace in this side, especially on the counter-attack, and we’ll be looking at exploiting them.”
Still, there is no club that United has beaten more often in the Premier League era than Villa – and the visitors’ only win against the Reds during that time came more than five years ago. There are few pointers to a repeat of Gabriel Agbonlahor’s headed winner at Old Trafford in December 2009.
Not that Van Gaal’s men will suffer for over-confidence after a mixed campaign, although the form of both key players and the team suggests a comfortable Old Trafford win.
“What I’ve said already is that every team in England can beat you,” said the Dutchman. “I thought after the Liverpool game that the international break was not at the right moment but when I see my players performing in the national team, I’m very pleased.”
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Blind; Carrick; Herrera, Mata, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
Villa (4-5-1): Guzan; Bacuna, Clark, Vlaar, Lowton; N’Zogbia, Gil, Delph, Sinclair, Agbonlahor; Benteke,
United: Valdes, Rafael, McNair, Smalling, Shaw, Blackett, Valencia, Di Maria, Januzaj, Wilson, Falcao
Villa: Given, Sánchez, Westwood, Kinsella, Grealish, Weimann, Cole, Senderos
United 95 – Draw 39 – Villa 49
Referee: Roger East
Assistants: R West, I Hussin
Fourth Official: M Atkinson
United 3-0 Villa
£1 bet club
Rooney and Fellaini to score @ 9/2
Running total: £12.50 up!
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These are increasingly desperate times for David Moyes. It is not just that the Scot has presided over 13 defeats in all competitions this season as Manchester United’s campaign disintegrated, but the abject manner in which they have come. None more so than United’s defeat to crosstown rivals Manchester City on Tuesday night, which was as miserable as any in the derby – at least in living memory.
Little wonder the pressure is beginning to tell on the former Everton coach, who is desperately clinging on to the last vestiges of neither a job he is qualified to do, nor – it would appear – suitably equipped to undertake.
Fear, in Moyes circumstances, is perhaps understandable. It has been a campaign unravelling before the manager’s eyes and, with players disgruntled and fans revolting, now totally out of the Scot’s control. Yet, there is also something truly pathetic in the manager’s repeated pleas for time and hackneyed excuses for failure. It is the poise of a man neither comfortable in the job, nor demonstrating the aptitude for growth.
And yet Moyes still has the capacity to surprise when sinking to new public relations depths. In the past month alone the Scot suggested United was an underdog in the recent fixture against Liverpool, and then he expressed an “aspiration” that the Reds might reached City’s level.
Neither opinion – whether honest in conception or otherwise – should ever been raised by an incumbent United manager.
Still, there is something so completely off-piste in Moyes’ comments on Friday, suggesting former manager Sir Alex Ferguson would also have struggled this season that the new man has shocked once again.
“If Sir Alex was here it would be difficult for him as well, and I’m sure he’d be aware of it,” said Moyes.
“It could have been the case no matter what this season. But it has been so un-Man United, which is why we have to look to continue a policy of building, improving, getting better. I think people are aware there’s a squad that is a bit more ageing, so I think it would have been a tough season for probably whoever was in charge of Manchester United this year.”
It is a badly misconceived notion; that United, under Ferguson, would have slipped from an 11-point Premier League margin of victory to the lowest points total in a quarter century. No matter how old the squad.
With that Moyes also issued the now standard weekly supplicate for time, reinforcing the party line that the new man is simply on a long-term journey of transformation to the post-Ferguson era. That somehow failure this season was inevitable – understandable even – given the meager resources available and ill luck procured.
Moreover, promises Moyes, while it has been a season of poor harvest, there will be jam tomorrow. Just stick with the Scot as he rids the club of the bad ingredients that are an inhibitor to success.
“It’s a long journey here and this is only the start of it,” said Moyes. “You work hard to get here in the first place but I’ve got to say I’m more driven to succeed than ever because I want the team to turn around.
“We’ve got a great club, which gives you the chance to do that because of the people we can attract and the players we can attract to the club. But it’s just going to take a little bit of time to get it sorted.
“There’s a rebuilding plan underway and anybody who has an understanding of the game understands that will happen.”
Results matter though and performances, whatever the rebuilding promised in the summer, have been so wretched to date as to render Moyes’ analysis redundant. The Scot was left with an ageing squad, and far too much filler, but there are some coaches – Ferguson included – with the uncanny ability to extract more than the sum of ample parts.
Or in other words, United’s is comfortably a top four squad that achieved even more last season; the difference in performance level is largely the responsibility of the man now in charge.
So to the weekend and Aston Villa’s visit to Old Trafford – a venue in which United has already lost seven times this season.
On the field Moyes will select a team to face Villa in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off mindful both of United’s performance against City, and the Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich to come.
Captain Nemanja Vidic returns after a two-game suspension, although Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Robin van Persie remain on the sidelines with injury. Moyes could rest Wayne Rooney even if he has been reluctant to do so in the campaign to date.
So few United’s stars impressed against City that Moyes may be tempted to make wholesale changes on Saturday, although supporter unrest will surely reach a tipping point if United lose at home once again. It is a dichotomy of prioritisation that Moyes is ill-equipped to make.
After all, Moyes has bought time with positive results against mediocre opposition this season: Arsenal remains the only side in the Premier League’s top nine to have succumbed to United this season. And yet few expect anything other than heavy defeat to Bayern.
Indeed, there are few teams that define mediocre better than Villa; a side too good to go down, and yet nowhere near a threat to the country’s leading clubs.
Still, it is also at Old Trafford where United has struggled most this season, reflected in the points tally – just 18 from 15 home matches, which is less than 14th-placed Norwich City.
It is a weakness that Villa can exploit despite Paul Lambert’s side sinking to a humiliating home defeat against Stoke City last weekend. Lambert believes that United’s poor campaign is a “major disaster” that will play into the visitors’ hands.
“We have to use that to try and keep the crowd quiet,” said Lambert
“When you have a big following with expectancy levels and you don’t perform it can happen. Every club has down time at some point. I think what has happened to United is they lost a really successful boss. Somebody had to do the job. But there is a generation of their fans who haven’t been used to losing.”
Meanwhile, Lambert will be without Karim El Ahmadi for the journey north, although Andreas Weimann is available despite being substituted with injury in last weekend’s defeat to Stoke.
Still, whatever United’s form – even at home – anything less than comfortable victory against the Midlanders could be near terminally fatal for the United boss. In the circumstances, victory – almost any victory – must be found if supporter unrest is not to gather momentum. It is, after all, very much what a Ferguson side would do.
Manchester United v Aston Villa, Premier League, Old Trafford, 12.45pm, 29 March 2014
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Vidic, Buttner; Young, Fellaini, Fletcher, Kagawa; Mata; Rooney
Villa (4-5-1): Guzman; Lowton, Baker, Vlaar, Bertrand; Westwood, Delph, Albrighton; Agbonlahor, Benteke, Weimann
United: Lindegaard, Evra, Ferdinand, Giggs, Januzaj, Carrick, Hernandez, Welbeck
Villa: Steer, Clark, Luna, Bennett, Bacuna, Sylla, Tonev, Holt, Helenius
Head to Head
United 94 Draw 38 Villa 49
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: S Child, H Lennard
Fourth Official: C Pawson
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Time, they say, is a commodity David Moyes has earned. Time for the Scot to revitalise a fading side after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement last summer. Time for Moyes to remodel United in his own image. Time to restore the club to a primacy lost over the past six months. Precious time. Time, also, it seems to undo much of the work achieved by Ferguson in a season too often characterised by utter incompetence.
It started in the summer, with executive vice president Ed Woodward flaunting his lack of transfer market nous all over Europe – to much hilarity among United’s peers on the continent. More than £27 million spent on Marouanne Fellaini became the summer’s punchline. One funny only to those resident beyond M16.
Then Moyes fired, replaced or drove away many of Ferguson’s coaching staff, instigating a waterfall of change that was totally unnecessary and ultimately counterproductive. United’s tactics, too, have regressed sharply, leaving the Reds stagnant, incoherent and frankly, at times, seemingly from another age altogether.
But if that ranks as incompetence, or at best misjudgment of a club’s requirements, then it pales into comparison with Moyes’ handling of Robin van Persie this season.
The Dutchman, an expensive, brilliant jewel whose capture last summer brought one final Premier League title to Sir Alex, is notoriously fragile. In nine seasons with Arsenal van Persie spent far too long in the treatment room – finding consistent fitness in his final campaign with the north Londoners.
Sensible, then, for the striker to take an active role in both his training and participation at United. He is a player who understands the limits of his body. And it is in this context that rumours of the Dutchman’s unhappiness with Moyes’ training regime have flourished. van Persie was, after all, deliberately “over-trained” in the summer – a practice denounced in some quarters as being from “Jurasic Park.”
Then to the past week, when Moyes admitted leaving the striker on the pitch against Newcastle United for the full 90 minutes because of a concern about the public reaction to a substitution. van Persie had missed almost a month of the campaign with a groin injury leaving Moyes’ admission, as the kids say, something of a WTF moment. One that has proven devastating to United’s hopes this season.
There was little surprise with the announcement on Friday that van Persie is set to miss a month of football with a thigh injury – it could be nine games before the Dutchman returns, possibly against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on 18 January.
First, United travel to Aston Villa on Sunday in a game that fulfills the criteria of every clichéd ‘must win’ fixture going. United will kick off 13 points behind Arsenal and 10 adrift of Manchester City, surely the new favourites for the Premier League title after smashing six past the leaders on Saturday.
Villa is the first of four December league games in which United cannot afford to drop points. The title is surely already gone, but a back-of-the envelope calculation leaves United potentially chasing 70 points to qualify for the Champions League next season.
“We have got a long way to go and we have to try to make sure we only take one game at a time,” said Moyes on Friday.
“We can only take it one game at a time and see what happens later in the season. We’re too far away from it but we’ll do everything possible to get closer [to the top]. We want to play well. We’ve not done as well in the league as we should have done but we’re working hard to try to put it right.
“There were a lot of games we were expected to win before but this club is expected to win all its games. That’s the fact and why, if we lose one or two, things get said. We’ve got a lot of games coming up where we can pick up points, but what we need to do is not talk about it and make it happen on the field.”
On the pitch United will be without not only van Persie, but Michael Carrick who is still two weeks away from full fitness. In his stead Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones, Ryan Giggs and Fellaini have struggled to impose consistent quality in the middle of the park. It is a long-term failing that the Belgian has so conspicuously done little to amend.
“Michael Carrick is getting better and has started some light work back on the grass,” said Moyes.
“I would still expect it’ll be around another two weeks, give or take a few days either side of that. He’s not joined in any football yet. I think with the injury he’s got, it’s something he’ll not be able to play game after game after game. It’s just something we have to take care of. Obviously Michael is a big influence as far as what we’ve got in central midfield.”
Moyes will look to one of Shinji Kagawa or Danny Welbeck to fill in for the Dutchman. Kagawa is yet to truly impress in a more extended run at number 10 in recent weeks, although the Japanese was bright in United’s victory at Bayer Leverkusen. There is surely more to come from the former Borussia Dortmund player.
Phil Jones may also continue in central midfield with Fellaini injured. The Lancastrian’s energy is always impressive, but his tactical indiscipline almost cost United during the recent victory over Shaktar Donestsk.
Meanwhile, the hosts are without suspended midfielder Fabian Delph, while Ron Vlaar is suffering with a calf injury. Libor Kozak and Antonio Luna could return to Paul Lambert’s squad.
Villa has suffered a mixed campaign to date – beating City, but losing six times in an underwhelming season. In truth it is a side struggling for an identity, where a rash of young players have largely failed to progress as hoped. There are few pointers towards a home win.
Still, it has been season for broken records. Everton hadn’t won at Old Trafford in more than 20 years, Newcastle in over 40. Villa’s last home league victory against United came more than 18 years ago, after which Alan Hansen famously proclaimed that the Reds could “win nothing with kids.”
Anything close to a repeat is unthinkable. Yet, in a season of predictable failures, few might be surprised.
Aston Villa v Manchester United, Premier League, Villa Park, 1.30pm, 14 December 2013
Villa (4-3-3): Guzan; Bacuna, Clark, Herd, Luna; El Ahmadi, Westwood, Tonev; Agbonlahor, Benteke, Kozák. Subs from: Baker, Weimann, Albrighton, Steer, Sylla, Tonev, Lowton, Bowery, Helenius, Burke, Johnson
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Vidić, Evra; Jones, Cleverley; Valencia, Kagawa, Welbeck; Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Smalling, Ferdinand, Anderson, Young, Nani, Giggs, Zaha, Januzaj, Hernández
Villa 49 Draw 38 United 93
Officials (all Serbian)
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistants: A Garratt, R West
Fourth Official: M Clattenburg
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.
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.
Sir Alex Ferguson will recall influential midfielder Paul Scholes to his line-up as Manchester United seeks to restore a five point Premier League lead on Sunday. Manchester City’s thumping 6-1 win at Norwich City has not only cut United’s lead, but increased the Blues’ goal difference advantage, with just five games remaining. Indeed, after United’s humbling at Wigan Athletic in midweek, Ferguson will seek a response that not only secures three points against Villa at Old Trafford, but ensures the Reds take momentum into the remainder of the season.
Ferguson’s side plays twice – at home to Villa and then Everton – before City is in action again, offering the carrot of a potential eight point league lead. But as the midweek loss at the DW Stadium demonstrated, United can take no points for granted this season. And with the trip to Eastlands looming, Ferguson is well aware that domestic title number 20 is far from won.
However, if any player can restore calm in the wake of defeat at Wigan, then Scholes will do so. It comes to something when a club the size of United is reliant on a 37-year-old former retiree, but as defeat to Roberto Matinez’ outfit so ably demonstrated, Scholes must surely play each of United’s five remaining fixtures.
Indeed, Ferguson was the subject of some criticism for resting Scholes at Wigan, but the 70-year-old manager insists that his flaxen-haired midfielder will now be fresh for the rest of the season.
“Paul has shown his influence since he has come back,” said Ferguson.
“We did the right thing resting him on Wednesday. It may not have looked like that to the fans but, after playing on Sunday and then having another match three days later, we did the right thing. He will play on Sunday and he will be fresh.
“There are still five games to go. The twists and turns of the Premier League are fascinating. We experienced that last year. We had to play a vital game against Chelsea and won. Experience helped us that day. Hopefully it does again. Sunday’s game is the one to focus on.”
Elsewhere, Ferguson is likely to restore Rafael da Silva to right-back after Phil Jones’ inconspicuous performance the DW. Meanwhile, Danny Welbeck could replace Javier Hernández as Wayne Rooney’s partner in attack for the Villans’ trip north.
However, the United manager will resist any temptation to make wholesale changes to the side that lost so meekly at Wigan. Scholes will partner Michael Carrick in central midfield, meaning that Ryan Giggs will drop to the bench.
Meanwhile, United goalkeeper David de Gea, who’s superb recent form has confounded many critics’ premature judgement of the Spaniard, says that the Reds must bounce back from midweek setback if they are to take the Premier League title.
“It was a disappointment on Wednesday but sometimes it can be a wake-up call just to remind us that anyone is capable of winning games in this league, against any opposition,” the stopper told ManUtd.com.
“We will be even more focused now going into these last five games, starting on Sunday, and carry on that battle for the title. I am really enjoying the title race. We know there is still a little way to go yet and there is still plenty of work to do. But we can’t wait for each game. I want Sunday to come round as quickly as possible. We want to keep putting in the performances we have been and we are determined to keep fighting to keep that advantage.”
Indeed, City’s fine result on Saturday ensures United will feel a little extra pressure to win at Old Trafford, especially with Villa in no great form. The Midlanders have won just once in the past six matches – and two in 13 – while Alex McLeish has been the subject of much home scrutiny for the dour style in which his side has played this season.
Yet Villa has lost only to Chelsea, Arsenal and City since mid-February, while the visitors have been beaten just four on the road this season. Only United has a better record on the road – it points to anything but a guaranteed three points for Ferguson’s side.
McLeish, who played under Ferguson at Aberdeen, welcomes back Carlos Cuellar, Charles N’Zogbia, Ciaran Clark and forward Nathan Delfouneso to his squad. However, Stephen Warnock faces a late test on an ankle problem, and Chris Herd has a head injury. Marc Albrighton, Darren Bent, and Fabian Delph are out.
“He was a great player, and he has had a good career as a manager,” said Ferguson of McLeish.
“He will do a good job at Villa given time, trust and confidence. We all need a pat on the back at times and Alex has done a remarkable job. I do have sympathy for Alex. I have known him since he was a little kid. When I brought him into the team at Aberdeen he was always a very receptive, intelligent young man.
“You only need a couple of injuries and it is a massive blow. And in Bent you are taking away a goalscorer who gets between 18 and 20 a season. That is a big loss.”
Sympathy or not, United can show none on the pitch on Sunday, despite Villa’s precariousness to the drop and Ferguson’s affection for his fellow Scot. With the Reds still to visit Eastlands this season, and City regaining a goal difference advantage, one slip could yet cost United the title.
Manchester United versus Aston Villa, Premier League, Old Trafford, 14 April 2012, 4pm.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Jones, Fabio, Smalling, Nani, Cleverley, Pogba, Giggs, Hernández, Berbatov.
Villa (4-4-2): Given; Hutton, Collins, Cuellar, Warnock; Bannan, Baker, Ireland, N’Zogbia; Agbonlahor, Weimann. Subs from: Guzan, Herd, Lichaj, Johnson, Clark, Gardner, Carruthers, Heskey, Delfouneso.
- United’s Premier League lead has been cut to just two points after United’s mixed Easter, with Ferguson’s side beating Queens Park Rangers, before losing at Wigan Athletic;
- Rooney and Scholes each hit the target in the game against QPR, although controversy surrounded the Scouser’s penalty;
- Rooney’s goal was his 22nd in the Premier League this season, while Scholes has scored three times the league since returning from retirement;
- Rooney’s goals have come from 118 shots at goal with 67 per cent on target;
- Meanwhile, evergreen Scholes has covered 50.28 miles so far this season, averaging 4.19 miles in each of his 12 appearances;
- Scholes has the best minutes per pass completed in the opponent’s half rate of any player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index, averaging a pass every one minute 47 seconds;
- Villa arrive to Old Trafford on the back of successive 1-1 draws in the Premier League;
- Chris Herd scored against Liverpool to give Villa the lead and Andreas Weimann did the same against Stoke City before the Villans opponents equalised in the last 20 minutes in both games;
- Midfielder Herd has made 14 appearances this season, winning 73 per cent of tackles attempted and making 54 interceptions;
- Villa have some of the most impressive defensive stats in the league, with players consistently among the top ranked for each defensive discipline – Stephen Warnock is ranked second in the Index for tackles won, having won 79 tackles so far this season, while James Collins is the top ranked player for clearances having made 84 so far this season;
- Collins has also made more interceptions than any other player this season with 206, and the second highest number of blocks with 33.
Referee: Mark Halsey (Welwyn Garden City)
Assistants: D Bond, R Ganfield
Fourth Official: L Probert
Dimitar Berbatov and five other players will miss Manchester United’s trip to Aston Villa this weekend through injury as Sir Alex Ferguson faces a deepening absentee list at the club. The Bulgarian aggravated an existing ankle injury in United’s 2-1 Carling Cup defeat to Crystal Palace on Wednesday, but is not expected to miss more than a fortnight. Meanwhile, twins Rafael and Fabio da Silva, both injured against the Championship side, will miss United’s visit to a ground where the Reds have a positive overall record.
Indeed, last season’s 2-2 draw at Villa Park was only the third point Villa has picked up at home against United in the last decade. That draw, built on a vibrant, attacking, youthful Villa side, is a world away from the dysfunctional unit manager Mcleish has built in the Midlands.
Meanwhile, Ferguson must balance both a lengthening injury list, and preparation for United’s crucial away tie with FC Basel in the Champions League next week. The Scot, never afraid to tinker, is likely to rotate his resources for the double-header. However, with United facing a less-than-taxing fixture list in December, Ferguson will surely seek to re-establish some momentum lost since the derby defeat to Manchester City.
“Berbatov’s injury isn’t serious,” explained the manager.
“He got injured the week before and it’s just a recurrence. We’ve been getting a few injuries but it happens. At the moment, we’re going through a spell where we’re getting a few a week but we have to get on with it.
“Squad rotation is inevitable. December is a particularly busy month when we often play a lot of games. We’ve got a Boxing Day game, a New Year’s Eve game and it’s going to be a hectic spell and that’s when the squad really kicks in. Actually, I think we’ve been using the squad very well lately. Nobody can complain about a lack of games. Everybody’s been getting their share.
“We’ve got two months to galvanise the club now. New Year’s Day, I want to be in a position where we’re top, or within a point or two of the leaders.”
United faces not only Villa but QPR, Fulham, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers in one of the club’s least challenging Christmas programmes of recent years. But the set back against Palace, combined with injury disruption, means that Ferguson faces a challenge restoring confidence ahead of the weekend fixture.
With Danny Welbeck and Berbatov injured, Ferguson is likely to pair Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández in attack. Meanwhile, former Villan Ashley Young should start on the left, with Nani on the right. However, the question on most fans’ lips is what balance Ferguson will strike in central midfield, with Park Ji-Sung near abysmal in the role against Palace. In-form Michael Carrick is therefore likely to partner Darren Fletcher, with Tom Cleverley and Anderson injury until the New Year.
However, Ravel Morrison’s positive substitute appearance against Palace may have given his manager food-for-thought, and the 18-year-old could yet make the United bench. With a team made largely of reserves losing in mid-week, Ferguson will have genuine cause for concern about his resources over a busy month, even if on paper United should emerge with 18 points before the New Year.
However, the manager, who apologised to fans and those players not selected on Wednesday, absolved his younger charges of blame for the defeat.
“It is hard to come on when the team is not playing well around them,” added Ferguson.
“It was a difficult night for them but it won’t do them any harm. They started very well for 10 minutes but then we got a lot of possession and didn’t do anything with it. I don’t think their goalkeeper made a save in the first half. Maybe we were playing too much short passing. There wasn’t enough spread in the game. I am not going to dwell and go into the ins and outs of it all. At the end of the day it has been a very disappointing night for Manchester United.”
Meanwhile, Villa manager Mcleish has a delicate selection dilemma for United’s visit. Chris Herd and Fabian Delph were deployed in the draw with Swansea last weekend, but Stiliyan Petrov is available after overcoming a hamstring problem, and Jermaine Jenas is pushing for a first start of the season. Barry Bannan and Stephen Ireland could also feature for the Villans.
Villa hasn’t beaten United at Villa Park since the 3-1 victory in 1996; the win that spurned Alan Hansen’s now infamous missive that “you can’t win anything with kids.” It is a result that Mcleish believes Villa can repeat this weekend, despite the Midlanders’ poor recent form.
“Why can’t we beat them this weekend?” said the Villa manager.
“This is a brilliant challenge for the players. But they shouldn’t be putting Manchester United players on a pedestal. They have to realise these guys have two legs just like us. There will be a day when Villa beat Manchester United at home again – so why can’t it be this weekend?
“To win a game like this would do wonders for everybody’s confidence and would be a big fillip for the fans. We’re at Villa Park, we want clubs like Manchester United going back up on the bus saying ‘what a game they gave us there, that’s a hard place to go’ and that’s what we’ve got to instil into the mentality here.”
Despite United’s average form of late, with Ferguson’s outfit having failed to score more than one goal in a league game for two months, the Reds will start as favourites. After all, even if United isn’t producing the free-flowing football of the late summer, then at least Villa’s product is far worse.
Aston Villa versus Manchester United, Premier League, Villa Park, Saturday 3 December 2011, 5.30pm
Villa (4-3-3): Given; Hutton, Dunne, Collins, Warnock; N’Zogbia, Petrov, Herd; Agbonlahor, Bent, Heskey. Subs from: Guzan, Clark, Cuellar, Jenas, Albrighton, Bannan, Delph, Delfouneso, Weimann, Ireland.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Pogba, Evans, Fryers, Gibson, Park, Valencia, Diouf, Macheda.
- United was held to a 1-1 draw against Newcastle United last weekend. Hernandez scored United’s only goal – his sixth of the season. The Mexican has scored his six goals from 21 attempts, making a conversion rate of 29 per cent;
- United has now scored just once in each of the side’s Premier League games since a 2-0 win over Norwich on October 1st, a run stretching six matches. Hernandez has scored the solitary goal in four of those six games;
- Previously United had scored 24 goals in seven games at the start of the season, with the 6-1 defeat to City seemingly marking a change from free flowing attacking football to a more cautious approach;
- Young covered most ground in the game against Newcastle with exactly seven miles and has averaged 6.47 miles per game this season;
- Only Fletcher has covered more ground per game for United this season, with 6.6 miles;
- Meanwhile, Villa played out a 0-0 draw with Swansea City last weekend, but Brummies covered a lazy 58.14 miles compared to Swansea’s 64.1. That was Villa’s lowest cumulative team distance of the season;
- Villa missed midfielder Petrov in midfield, who has averaged an impressive 6.62 miles per game so far this season, and should be fit again for United’s visit;
- Stephen Warnock is now Villa’s highest ranked player in the EA Sports Performance Index in 40th place. The young defender has won 23 tackles so far this season, 82 per cent of those attempted, and made 23 interceptions.
Referee: Lee Probert
Assistant Referees: Stuart Burt, Scott Ledger
Fourth Official: Kevin Friend