Premier League | Old Trafford | Sat 29 Mar | 12:45pm
A game David Moyes might be able to win.
So much for the recovery. Wins against Olympiakos and West Ham may have given the impression Manchester United were on the mend. Some were whispering Moyes had turned a corner. The revival lasted 43 seconds against Manchester City, the time it took for Edin Dzeko to remind us otherwise. The 3-0 scoreline was kind on Moyes' men; dispatched with utter contempt by their noisy neighbours. Two steps forward, 10 steps back for this damned United.
MAN UNITED FORM
- Man Utd 0-3 Man City (Prem)
- West Ham 0-2 Man Utd (Prem)
- Man Utd 3-0 Olympiakos (CL)
- Man Utd 0-3 Liverpool (Prem)
- WBA 0-3 Man Utd (Prem)
ASTON VILLA FORM
- Aston Villa 1-4 Stoke (Prem)
- Aston Villa 1-0 Chelsea (Prem)
- Aston Villa 4-1 Norwich (Prem)
- Newcastle 1-0 Aston Villa (Prem)
- Cardiff 0-0 Aston Villa (Prem)
The harsh truth is that United have found their level. Good enough to beat the likes of West Ham, United under Moyes are evidently not up to the task of performing against the league’s more accomplished outfits.
We've all read the stat but it's worth repeating that in 11 matches against the teams above them this season, United have won just once – beating Arsenal at home last November, back when we didn't fully understand how bad the champions had suddenly become. One win, three draws and seven defeats; five goals scored and 19 conceded.
Statistics can paint a false picture but they speak the truth here. Indeed, that’s just one of a growing number lining up to highlight United’s rapid decline. Never before in the Premier League era have they had fewer than 60 points by this stage of the season – 31 games in, they've scraped together 51. Not since 2001/02 have they lost six games at home – and that's more home defeats in a single season then they suffered in the last three combined.
This season they’ve amassed fewer home points in the league than Norwich and Hull (21). They’ve scored only as many home league goals as Cardiff and Fulham (18), the bottom two. And you don’t need statistics to illustrate that things are getting worse not better under Moyes, but there are stats for that too. In 2013, United played 29 games under Moyes, winning 18, drawing six and losing five. In 2014 they’ve played 17, winning seven, drawing two and losing eight.
However you cut it, this is clearly not forward progress.
Aston Villa will be wrestling with similar sense of deflation after their 4-1 surrender at home to Stoke last weekend. Home wins over Norwich and a lesser expected but largely merited three points from Chelsea have been Villa's only back-to-back wins of the current campaign. More than that, the run led some to excitedly suggest that they too had turned a corner and were heading to a better place – the promised land of 10th.
Had they beaten Stoke, it would have been the first time in seven long years that they'd won three in succession at home. But we know the rest. Villa scored first then conceded four – Stoke did to Villa what Villa had recently done to Norwich. What goes around comes around.
Paul Lambert mumbled something largely inaudible afterwards and looked impressively furious. But given the 'happy' face he wore for the cameras after the Chelsea win also looked impressively furious, it's hard to read that man's moods. What's certain is that he takes his leggy-looking team to Old Trafford knowing a win could take them up above Stoke and into 10th, but that a defeat could drop them to 14th. Like United, they appear to have found their place in the table – not good enough to climb much higher, too competent to go down.
Villa travel knowing a win is statistically unlikely – they’ve prevailed just once in their last 10 league visits to Old Trafford, losing the other nine. In those game they’ve scored just six times to United’s 28. Few would expect them to get anything on Saturday, then, but few expected Everton to win at Old Trafford for the first time since 1992, or West Brom for the first time since 1978, or Newcastle for the first time since 1972. All things considered, then, it might be more of a surprise if they don't leave with all three points.
Nemanja Vidic is available after serving his ban for seeing red against Liverpool. Robin van Persie remains a long-term injury with his knackered knee but Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans could return and spare Michael Carrick another turn as a centre-half. Rio Ferdinand could well be a doubt; nowadays he usually is.
For Villa, Karim El Ahmadi (thigh) and Andreas Weimann (dead leg) are the main concerns, with both having picked up knocks against Stoke. Lambert expects them to be fit for Saturday.
Player to watch: Wayne Rooney (Man United)
An obvious choice but with good reason. As if to justify his new salary, Rooney has been one of very few positives in recent weeks for the ailing champions. His goals secured the points and made all manner of hysterical headlines at West Ham, while his energy, urgency and all-round application against City was fruitless but admirable. His desperation to influence a game that was slipping from United’s grasp just 43 seconds in was illustrated by the fact he popped up in every single outfield position on the pitch. He was the only man in red looking to influence the game. Against lesser opposition, his endeavour will reap greater rewards.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Villa 0-3 United (Prem, Dec 13)
- United 3-0 Villa (Prem, Apr 13)
- Villa 2-3 United (Prem, Nov 12)
- United 4-0 Villa (Prem, Apr 12)
- Villa 0-1 United (Prem, Dec 11)
Despite being the same side plus Juan Mata that won the Premier League by 11 points last season, this is a team in transition. We know this because Moyes keeps on saying it, while silently praying for time. “It is underway in its own way,” he said. “We have got a period of time where we are going to have to make sure we get to that level (of competing) which we are not at just now.”
The worry for Moyes is that while Alex Ferguson may have convinced the Glazers to remain patient, the fans' discontent is beginning to growl – a small number turning on Fergie at the end of the derby.
Lambert is under no such pressure. His team are as good as safe for another season, he still has credit in the bank for beating Chelsea and not even Big Fat Ron claiming Deadly Doug would have sacked him by now if he was still the chairman can change any of that. Luckily, Randy Lerner pays no attention to Big Fat Ron and is reportedly keen to see Lambert sign a new and improved contract. It's recognition of the unspectacular but steady progress he's made at Villa Park on a budget of bugger all.
Facts and figures
- United have lost back-to-back home games for a second time this season. Prior to this year they’d lost consecutive home matches twice in Premier League history – they’ve never lost 3 in a row.
- United have won 13 of 15 home games against bottom-half teams since the start of last season with 9 wins by at least 2 clear goals.
- There have been at least 3 goals in 12 of Aston Villa’s last 14 trips to top-half teams.
- United have won the last 6 meetings between these teams and scored at least 3 times on 5 occasions.
A low-grade draw, keeping the wolves from Moyes' door for a little while longer. 1-1.