Premier League | Villa Park | Sat 20 Dec | 3pm
The easiest game David de Gea will play this season.
ASTON VILLA FORM
- WBA 1-0 Villa (Prem)
- Villa 2-1 Leicester (Prem)
- Palace 0-1 Villa (Prem)
- Burnley 1-1 Villa (Prem)
- Villa 1-1 So’ton (Prem)
MAN UNITED FORM
- Man Utd 3-0 Liverpool (Prem)
- So’ton 1-2 Man Utd (Prem)
- Man Utd 2-1 Stoke (Prem)
- Man Utd 3-0 Hull (Prem)
- Arsenal 1-2 Man Utd (Prem)
After losing 5-3 to Leicester in September, Manchester United were 12th in the Premier League table. Louis van Gaal’s side had collected just five points from five games. Their fear factor was still missing... had the empire crumbled?
Van Gaal – the man brought in to restore United’s attacking swagger – was failing already. His players were struggling to adapt to the Dutchman’s 3-5-2 system, and key starters were spending more time in the treatment room than out on the pitch. Pundits couldn’t wait to churn out stats proving David Moyes had a better record than the new United boss.
But, in the fickle world of football this has all been forgotten after two victory-laden months for the Reds. A 3-0 win over Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday was their sixth successive Premier League win. They’re now third in the Premier League and trail leaders Chelsea by just eight points – sparking title talk.
It's all a little premature, of course. United’s revival is gathering momentum, but they have a long way to go. Right now individual brilliance is driving them forward; Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney are punishing opponents in the attacking third, while goalkeeper De Gea treats every attempt on his goal as a personal affront.
The Spanish goalkeeper has had a lot to do with a brittle rearguard in front of him.
A spate of injuries and poor dealings in the transfer market left United short in defence – and though key figures have returned in recent weeks, this is a weakness Aston Villa can exploit. Unfortunately for the West Midlands outfit, though, they’ve struggled in front of goal all season, having netted just 10 goals – the lowest tally in the Premier League.
Villa striker Christian Benteke – who has scored once in eight games this season – missed two late chances to level the game against West Brom on Saturday. If he’s one on one with De Gea, there looks to be only one winner at the minute.
Defeat at the Baggies was their first loss in six games – albeit one suffered with 10 men for around 70 minutes after Kieran Richardson was sent off – and a second successive defeat could pull them right back into the relegation whirlpool.
Unfortunately for Paul Lambert, the Scot hasn’t managed to find a winning formula for beating United since his appointment in 2012. He’s lost all four games against the Red Devils, conceding 13 goals in the process. With seven first-team players out, he's going to have to find a solution to improve this record with a patched-up team.
Richardson and Alan Hutton are suspended, Tom Cleverley is ineligible as part of his loan deal agreement and Ashley Westwood, Philippe Senderos, Joe Cole and Libor Kozak are all injured.
United have their own injury problems. Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw and Daley Blind are all crocked, while Marcos Rojo and Angel Di Maria are both fighting to prove their fitness for the trip to Villa Park.
Player to watch: Ashley Young (Man United)
It seemed like Young would never recover from a disastrous Euro 2012. Plagued by injury and poor form, the Manchester United wide man was fast turning into an Old Trafford scapegoat. Such was his luck, he even managed to open his mouth just as a passing bird decided to unload its lunch (how can this possibly be deemed as lucky?).
But he’s enjoyed a new lease of life under Van Gaal. The Dutchman has deployed the former Villa player as a left-wing-back and Young has shown the tactical nous, discipline and versatility to operate effectively in the role.
As a natural winger his strengths going forward are obvious, but it’s his defensive work that has really impressed. During United’s 3-0 over Hull he was in the top five performers for clearances, interceptions and ball recoveries. He was at it again the following week against Stoke as United recorded a 2-1 victory. Young won 3 of his 4 aerial duels, made more interceptions than any other player (4) and recorded the most successful dribbles on the day (4).
Pace is Villa’s weapon of choice with Gabriel Agbonlahor, Benteke and Charles N’Zogbia leading the charge. Young’s speed and discipline will be crucial to halting the counter-attack.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- United 4-1 Villa (PL, Mar 14)
- Villa 0-3 United (PL, Dec 13)
- United 3-0 Villa (PL, Apr 13)
- Villa 2-3 United (PL, Nov 12)
- United 4-0 Villa (PL, Apr 12)
Lambert has a lot on his plate. He’s trying to get his team to build from the back, rather than lumping it forward and playing the percentages. And he’s got to do all of this without his former assistant Roy Keane, who decided to focus on his role with the Republic of Ireland (nothing to do with falling out with the players, according to Lambert).
Rather than dwell on the negatives, though, Lambert chose to praise the attitude and application of his players after their 10-man defeat at The Hawthorns.
“The movement in the team was really good and that’s a big compliment for the team because you wouldn’t have known we had 10 men up until the 70th minute,” said the Scotsman. “We’re working on something new and the lads seem to enjoy it. We’ve only started working on it recently but the more the players do it, the more confident they feel.”
Even though his side have won six on the trot, Van Gaal isn’t satisfied with their performances and won’t be drawn on a surprise title challenge. “Of course we are winning now six matches in a row. It is fantastic, but we have to improve our playing style still and I am saying that nearly every week,” he said after the 3-0 win over Liverpool. “The players have a belief in our philosophy. That is why they want to fight to the end. Nevertheless, they can improve. We have to improve. In spite of the goals, we gave a lot of chances away and we have to improve on that.”
Facts and figures
- Wayne Rooney has scored more Premier League goals against Aston Villa than he has versus any other opponent (12).
- Man United have won 103 Premier League points against Aston Villa – more than any other side have managed against the Villans.
- Aston Villa have won just 1 of the last 37 Premier League games against Man United (D9 L27), including losing the last 7 in a row.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
In-form United to continue their good run of form: 3-1 to the visitors.
Back 1-3 at 14/1 with Bet365. Odds right at time of publication