Aston Villa claimed their first back-to-back wins over Swindon Town and Sunderland over the last few weeks so confidence will be high, but after such an inconsistent season can we really expect to perform against Manchester United this weekend? Our season has been dogged with brilliant performances followed by sloppy displays; take the 4-2 away win at Manchester City in the Capital One Cup followed by a 4-1 thrashing at Premier League new boys Southampton.
So after a rare clean sheet and league win it will be interesting to see if the players can keep that form up and build some momentum. Realistically, last weekend was a must win as our remaining fixtures in November are pretty frightening; after tomorrow’s game we travel to current champions Manchester City, swiftly followed by a home tie against Arsenal.
One major positive we can take into this game is that against Sunderland we had a clean sheet and hopefully our new back four will gain some confidence from that. In truth it wasn’t hard, and it certainly wasn’t a big accomplishment, but they all count. Sunderland have had the fewest shots on target from any team in the top five European leagues, and I believe Brad Guzan only actually had one save to make, but it all makes a difference in the players’ minds.
With our defensive injury list slightly shorter than it previously was, we could have seen the same back four that finished the game against Sunderland start against United, but with Eric Lichaj suspended Enda Stevens will likely make his full league debut. Against Manchester United of them all, watch out for that one.
United however aren’t without their defensive problems and this will be another positive for us. Jonny Evans is fighting to be fit and with Christian Benteke’s brilliant display against Sunderland fresh in my memory, I’d fancy him to cause Rio Ferdinand and presumably Michael Carrick a few problems. Gabby Agbonlahor seems to be finally returning to a shadow of what he can be; scoring in back to back games and picking up his first league goal in 363 long, hard days.
He’s actually scored a hatful of brilliant goals this season, but they’ve all been in the league cup. The goal against Sunderland however was Gabby returning to what we like. He ran with the ball down the touchline before laying off to a teammate and taking position in the box, as the cross came in he lost his marker, anticipated Benteke’s knock-down and volleyed home with that strikers instinct he often lacks. He also took a flying karate-kick from Carlos Cuellar for his troubles, but we Villa fans still love King Carlos so we’ll let him off that one.
The problem area for me comes in the middle of the park, which has been the problem area for the majority of games this season. I’ve said it in a few articles already, but Karim El Ahmadi looks like the best midfielder we’ve had at the club in a long time sometimes, but during his suspension against Sunderland our much changed midfield bossed the game and it will be hard to drop one of the trio who performed so well – it would be hard for me anyway; Paul Lambert however has proven already that he isn’t bothered whose feathers he ruffles.
If we line-up in the same 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation that proved to be so successful against Sunderland then we have a selection problem, albeit the kind a manager would prefer to have. Ashley Westwood and Barry Bannan were the two deep sitting midfielders in the last game and the pair of them were excellent, but there’s a big risk that they would be too lightweight and overrun by the experience in United’s midfield.
Stephen Ireland played the link-up between defence and attack and we saw a really contrasting two halves from him - the first he was largely wasteful to put it politely and was slow on the ball, but during the second he was incisive and decisive which was key for our attacking movement.
We shouldn’t worry too much about United because if we play our own game then we can beat anyone in this league on our day, proven by the excellent performance at the Etihad Stadium in the Capital One Cup. I’m fully expecting us to line-up positively and show a desire and commitment to win. That’s the bare minimum; any points from this one are a nice bonus.