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