Villa Park, Birmingham
December 15, 2013; 13:30 GMT
A match between the 9th and 11th place team in the league in middle of December is normally not one to draw much attention. But then again, normally, the defending champions do not occupy one of those positions come the middle of December. Such has been the sorry state of affairs with the league form of Manchester United this season that they face the prospect of being overtaken by their hosts if they slip to defeat at Aston Villa on Sunday.
Villa themselves will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing defeat last weekend at lowly Fulham. Paul Lambert’s men have already caused two big upsets this season with their wins at Arsenal on opening day and against Manchester City in September. However, apart from the win against City, Aston Villa have nothing much to show in terms of their results at home this season with their seven fixtures returning only seven points and six goals. But Villa would believe that now is as good a time as any to take on Manchester United and end their long drought of league victory at Villa Park against the same opposition.
For Manchester United, it might be one of the rare occasions when they would welcome the opportunity to play away from Old Trafford. Two successive defeats at home to Everton and Newcastle have put a real spanner in new manager David Moyes’ work. While a win in the midweek in the Champions League did uplift the mood slightly, failure to win on Sunday will mean surrendering of whatever little momentum that might have gained against Shakhtar Donetsk. Manchester United are already seven points off the fourth place – a bare minimum requirement – and have to capitalise on their relatively easy set of fixtures over the festive period in order to get back into contention. A comfortable win on Sunday will do nicely to set them on their way to that target.
Team News and Tactics
Last weekend at Fulham, Aston Villa have been severely hampered due to the absence of key personnel at the back. Injuries to skipper Ron Vlaar and Antonio Luna meant Lambert had to hand Chris Herd his first league start since New Year’s Day. Vlaar looks set to miss out again but Luna may return from his groin problem. Joe Bennett and Charles N’Zogbia remain on the sidelines and has been joined by striker Libor Kozak who has picked up an ankle knock. Fabian Delph, who has been impressive in recent weeks, will serve the customary one game ban for a 5th yellow card picked up this season.
Aston Villa’s problems in hitting the back of the net on a regular basis this season may be attributed to the dip in form of Christian Benteke. The Belgium international seems to be afflicted by the classic second season syndrome and has not scored in his previous 8 games in the Premier League. Getting the man, who had such a stellar debut season for Aston Villa and attracted interest of a number of high profile clubs in the summer, to rediscover his scoring touch will surely be a matter of top priority for Lambert. In the absence of Kozak, Benteke will have to lead the line and try to end his drought against a Manchester United squad that has kept only one clean sheet in the Premier League this season.
In the midfield, Delph’s suspension means an enforced change in form of either Yacouba Sylla or Matthew Lowton. Defensively, Aston Villa will have to improve on their performance against Fulham last weekend if they are to keep the big name strikers of Manchester United out. Vlaar will obviously be a big miss but the likes Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker will have to step up their game.
Probable Starting Lineup (4-3-3): Guzan; Bacuna, Herd, Clark, Baker; El Ahmadi, Sylla, Westwood; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor
For David Moyes and Manchester United, last month’s international break seems to have come at the wrong time. United went into the break on a 8 match unbeaten streak that included the defeat of leaders Arsenal. Post that game, the gap between the two sides was down to 5 points with the momentum in Man United’s favour. Post the break Manchester United have failed to win a single game in the league, and have seen Arsenal stretch their lead to a nearly insurmountable 13 points. No club in Premier League history has clawed back this large a gap to win the league title.
While David Moyes is yet to concede the league publicly, deep down inside he will probably settle for a place in the top four. But even to get there, significant improvement is required in the team’s form. An injury to Michael Carrick, whose last game was incidentally was the win against Arsenal, has not helped the cause of Manchester United; and Moyes surely cannot wait to welcome the England international back in the fold. But it will not happen this weekend at least and the likes Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley must pick up the mantle in the centre of the park.
Marouane Fellaini remains a doubt with his back injury whereas Chris Smalling is struggling with a hamstring problem. On the brighter side, Wayne Rooney is back in league action after serving his suspension against Newcastle. With Robin van Persie out for a month due to a thigh injury, the onus will be on the Rooney to inspire Manchester United to a much needed victory ahead of the festive season.
Probable Starting Lineup (4-4-2): De Gea; Rafael, Vidic, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Cleverley, Jones, Kagawa; Rooney, Hernandez
- Aston Villa are the only team in the Premier League this season to have not dropped any points from winning position.
- Villa have won only one in their last 35 league fixtures against Manchester United and have not beaten them at home since August 1995.
- Wayne Rooney’s tally of 10 league goals for Manchester United against Aston Villa is his joint highest against any team.
- Manchester United, presently on the back of successive league defeats, have not lost three in a row in Premier League since December 2001.
Player To Watch
Phil Jones (Manchester United)
Jones has had to play as a makeshift central midfielder in recent weeks and seems to be growing into the role. The player whom Sir Alex Ferguson described as potentially one of the club’s greatest does possess a number of attributes required to perform midfield duties effectively. His sharp finish against Shakhtar Donetsk indicates that there are goals in him; and David Moyes has also challenged the youngster to contribute more frequently in this aspect while playing as a midfielder.
Aston Villa 1-2 Manchester United
It is pretty much a must win game for David Moyes and Manchester United and given their track record at Villa Park, one would expect them to get what they must.
Blast From The Past
The last time Manchester United visited Aston Villa, the Champions came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2. Is there another thriller on the cards this time?