The champions seek a first league win at Villa Park since October 2007…
The Reds will be desperate to get back on track after last weekend’s controversial draw with Newcastle United ended a run of three league wins since the Manchester derby defeat. Wednesday’s Carling Cup exit at the hands of Championship club Crystal Palace is another blot on the copybook but the culpable eleven was unlikely to line up against Aston Villa anyway with Sir Alex Ferguson selecting different sides for different competitions. The Villans, by contrast, have only had the league to concentrate on after bowing out of the Carling Cup at home to Bolton back in September. This singular focus has not aided Alex McLeish’s men however – they have only won two of their last eight games, against Wigan Athletic and Norwich City, both of these at Villa Park. United’s last three visits have all ended in draws – could Saturday’s game go the same way?
Ins and outs
Busy times are here again in the Carrington treatment room, with Dimitar Berbatov, Fabio and Rafael all receiving knocks against Palace in midweek. Anderson, Tom Cleverley and Michael Owen remain long-term absentees for United but hopefully Danny Welbeck will be ready to return. The Villa squad is in comparatively good health with Stiliyan Petrov expected to overcome the tight hamstring that caused him to miss the Swansea stalemate and ruined his ever-present record this season. USA right-back Eric Lichaj is ruled out, however.
United equalled a club record of 29 league games without defeat by beating Villa 3-1 at Old Trafford on 1 February. Wayne Rooney netted in the opening and closing minutes of the first half and was joined on the scoresheet by Nemanja Vidic shortly after Darren Bent pulled one back for the visitors, then managed by Gerard Houllier.
Former Rangers and Scotland manager Alex McLeish may not have been the most popular appointment when he arrived directly from Villa’s relegated local rivals Birmingham City, but ‘Big Eck’ then bought himself some time with a seven-match unbeaten start to the league season. McLeish’s three summer signings – goalkeeper Shay Given, full-back Alan Hutton and winger Charles N’Zogbia – all featured in the 0-0 draw at Swansea last weekend, so his vision of the Villa side is certainly starting to take shape as they adjust to life after Ashley Young and Stewart Downing.
Gabriel Agbonlahor is leading the way for Villa’s attack this season, not only matching Darren Bent’s tally of five league strikes but also topping the club’s assists chart with four goals created. The lightning-quick local boy was unfortunate not to win a fourth England cap last month when injury forced his withdrawal from Fabio Capello’s plans.
“The thing about playing against Nani and Young is you can watch them whenever you want because Manchester United are always on television.” – Villa full-back Stephen Warnock has no excuses for not doing his homework on the Reds’ wingers.
Selection permitting, the afore-mentioned Young will make his first appearance at Villa Park since leaving for United. The England international spent four-and-a-half-seasons there after Martin O’Neill signed him as a relative unknown from Watford for £9.65million in January 2007.
Lee Probert can hardly be accused of being a ‘homer’ – the away side have won in five of his last six matches, most recently at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday when Manchester City knocked Arsenal out of the Carling Cup. His previous United games include August’s 3-0 win over Tottenham at Old Trafford and the magnificent 7-1 thrashing of Blackburn a year ago.
Manchester City will go eight points clear again – just as they did before United’s tea-time win at Swansea – if they beat Norwich at the Etihad Stadium at 15:00 on Saturday. The team breathing down the Reds’ necks, Tottenham, are also at home at the same time, with Bolton Wanderers visiting White Hart Lane. Fourth against fifth, Newcastle vs Chelsea, is the first game of the weekend at 12:45 GMT.