Last season, fixtures against Aston Villa provided plenty of memorable moments for Manchester United. In November, trailing 2-0 at Villa Park after a dreadful first 50 minutes, United produced a typical Fergiesque comeback, with Javier Hernandez scoring two and forcing an own goal, as the Reds emerged with a 3-2 victory.
Five months later, on a balmy April night, United clinched their 20th title in spectacular fashion as they thrashed Paul Lambert’s men 3-0 at Old Trafford, courtesy of a Robin Van Persie’s hat-trick within 33 minutes.
Considering that, given the current circumstances, they won’t get to celebrate another night like last April for quite a while, United could do well to muster the same sort of spirited performance they delivered a little more than 12 months ago, or else they run the risk of falling even further behind on the table.
Those who ridiculed the 12-game unbeaten run as “something only small teams would cherish” must wish they had kept their mouths shut, for United haven’t won in the last four Premier League games, with consecutive defeats at home against Everton and Newcastle sounding like an ominous indication on the direction this season is heading to.
Tuesday’s win against Shakthar Donetsk was far from impressive – the first half was, in fact, probably the worst 45 minutes of the season – but did the job, which, like it or loathe it, is what United must focus on for the next couple of months, for while it’d be pleasant to see the Reds play swashbuckling football, the direness of results must be addressed first.
In theory at least, a trip to Villa Park is the perfect opportunity for United to regroup, for the Villans have failed to score in three of their last four league games on home turf and their talismanic striker Christian Benteke has not found the net in a Premier League game in over 10 hours and 40 minutes.
United’s record at Villa Park – the Reds haven’t lost their 17 league meetings away at Villa – would normally fill the Reds with confidence but, given this season’s trends, it merely looks like another long-standing record likely to come under threat, particularly if United produce a performance of the same sheer ineptitude that characterised their last two league encounters.
Yesterday United confirmed unwelcome news that Robin Van Persie will miss the entire festive period and beyond with a thigh injury likely to keep him sidelined for at least four weeks. Wayne Rooney is expected to start and, hopefully, extend his goalscoring record against the Villans who are Rooney’s joint-favourite target in the Premier League having netted 10 times against them.
Michael Carrick’s absence will continue to hamper the Reds’ midfield and it’ll be interesting to see whether David Moyes opts for Phil Jones or Marouane Fellaini alongside Tom Cleverley who’s expected to return to the starting XI given that Ryan Giggs played in Tuesday’s Champions League tie.
Ashley Young has almost no chance of featuring against his former club, given his appalling performance in the Champions League, while Antonio Valencia and one between Nani – who did very little to impress last week – and Adnan Januzaj should be deployed on the flanks, unless Moyes opt to play Shinji Kagawa wide on the left.
Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic could return to the side but remain doubtful while United will no doubt be wary of Christian Benteke who, despite his goal drought, remains more than capable of tormenting United’s inconsistent back four, while Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor can also cause trouble as United found out last year.
With Arsenal traveling to Manchester City and Liverpool facing Spurs away, there’s room for United to make up some ground on the table but possibly more importantly; steady the ship.