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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