Manchester United defends a five point Premier League lead tonight with Aston Villa at Old Trafford. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit could move up to eight points clear with Arsenal also in action on a busy night in the Premier League.
Ferguson can boast a virtually fully fit squad, with most leading lights returning to the side following United’s victory over Southampton in the FA Cup last week. In addition to rested stars, injured defenders Rio Ferdinand and Rafael da Silva are fit to return, while Michael Carrick will feature if an ankle problem has cleared sufficiently. Patrice Evra also returns following a short trip back to France for a family bereavement.
United faces a Villa side with renewed confidence after the £24 million capture of Darren Bent and three wins on the bounce. And without a victory over Villa in the past three meetings between the sides, United is set for another close encounter with the Midlanders.
Ferguson is set to reunite Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov in attack, with each experiencing deeply contrasting fortunes this season. While the Bulgarian has now bagged 19 goals, with a brace against Blackpool last week, Rooney has just one strike from open play this season.
It’s a fact that does not sit comfortably with Ferguson though.
“Some of our critics are making a meal out of the fact that Wayne Rooney is lagging behind in the goal stakes. He is, compared with the bucketload he scored last year, but I am not worried,” said the United manager.
“It is the scoring partnership that matters and the combination between our two front men has improved beyond all recognition. Last year, Wayne benefited from Dimitar’s work but this year it is Berbatov enjoying the last touch.
“If we finish the season with Berbatov scoring 30 and Wayne on 10 – and those are the targets I have in mind – I will be more than happy. That is what I call a successful strike partnership, reminiscent of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke.”
Still, Ferguson must decide whether to stick with his misfiring £30 million striker or bring Javier Hernandez into the side. The 22-year-old Mexican has scored 11 goals in just 12 starts this season, including vital goals against Blackpool and Southampton in the past week. Although Rooney is favourite to start, the Ferguson has never been afraid to drop his leading stars in the relentless drive for success. Indeed, it is arguable whether Rooney merits a place in the side on current form irrespective of whether Hernandez starts or not.
It is this outlook underpins United success under the Scot’s management over the past quarter century says Ferdinand, with the Reds coming from behind to win twice in the past week.
“You never lose faith when you play for Manchester United,” Ferdinand told The Sun.
“It’s in our make-up the game’s not over until the final whistle has blown and until then you try your hardest.
“If you do that week in, week out, you get a bit of luck and you get your rewards. It comes from the manager – he has got that desire and will to win.
“He’s been here 25 years and if he’s still got it, then why haven’t players who have only been here for a year, two years, 10 years, whatever?
“So it comes from him and filters down through the club and that’s always the way it’s been. That’s why you see it so often that we can come back from adverse situations and create results like we did against Blackpool.”
Meanwhile, Villa will give a late fitness test to Agbonlahor, with the striker suffering a minor hamstring strain. Defender Nathan Baker is suspended, while Fabian Delph has a knee injury. New signing Michael Bradley could play following a deadline day transfer from Borussia Monchengladbach.
Darren Bent return’s the the squad after missing last week’s FA Cup win over Blackburn Rovers.
Despite Villa’s lowly position in the Premier League under-fire manager Gerard Houllier says his team can with at Old Trafford.
“We’re capable of beating any team,” said Houllier.
“We need to take our hats off to the record so far of Manchester United – to stay undefeated for that many games. They’re impressive.
“They were impressive when we played them. It was a thrilling game. The way they came back into the game – I think the goal from Federico Macheda changed everything because it brought a spark of hope. If we’d have been able to hold another ten minutes it would have been different.
“I wish I could play as badly as they do and have the same record! People say that but when they played well they battered Birmingham 5-0, Blackburn 7-1. I hope they don’t play well then!”
While another cricket score seems unlikely, with Villa’s record at Old Trafford respectable in recent years, Ferguson will take any victory and a vital three points in the title race. Indeed, with Chelsea spending more than £70 million on transfer deadline day in a desperate attempt to clam back lost points, Ferguson will be keen to ram home United’s advantage.
Villa – 433 – Friedel; Clark, Cuellar, Collins, Walker; Petrov, Reo-Coker, Bannan; Albrighton, Bent, Young. Subs from: Bradley, Marshall, Downing, Delfouneso, Heskey, Pires, Makoun, Agbonlahor.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Fletcher, Giggs; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Evans, Brown, Gibson, Owen, Bébé, Lindegaard, Fabio da Silva, O’Shea, Carrick, Anderson, Obertan, Hernández, Smalling.
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistant referees: Dean Mohareb & Glenn Turner
Fourth official: Stuart Attwell
United – WWWWWW
Villa – LWDWWW