Aston Villa v Manchester United, Carling Cup final, February 28, 2010
A cracking Carling Cup final is in store at Wembley as two of the form teams in the Premier League go head to head for the first silverware available this season. Aston Villa will not be overawed playing against the current holders of the Carling Cup having taken four points off Manchester United this season, and there are just so many match winners on show that a winner is hard to predict.
The scenes following Aston Villaâ€™s 6-2 semi-final second leg win over Blackburn were a clear indication of the positive feeling at the club under Martin Oâ€™Neill and American owner Randy Lerner. Oâ€™Neill, who won this competition twice as a player with Nottingham Forest and twice as a manager of Leicester, has built a strong side that is well placed to grab the elusive fourth spot in the league (Villa are 7/2 to finish in the top four) and, after their win over Crystal Palace in midweek, are well placed in the FA Cup too. (Villa are 5/1 to win the FA Cup.)
Villaâ€™s big doubt for the Wembley showdown is midfield enforcer Stiliyan Petrov who missed the FA Cup replay on Wednesday. Youngster Fabian Delph was taken off on 76 minutes against Palace, presumably with an eye on Sundayâ€™s match. Petrov has been crucial for the Midlands side this season, allowing James Milner the opportunity to unleash his boundless energy throughout the rest of the pitch.
Besides Milner, undoubtedly one of the players of the season, fellow English hopefuls Gabriel Agbonlahor, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young have all been a part of Villaâ€™s success this season and will be a danger to Nemanja Vidic and co. (Villa are 16/5 to score in both halves.) At the back, Richard Dunne and Carlos Cuellar have been solid and Stephen Warnock will be out to impress with a potential left back spot in the England World Cup squad up for grabs.
The main decisions for Martin Oâ€™Neill surround positions at either end of the pitch. Brad Guzan is expected to get the nod over Brad Friedel with the former gaining experience as the â€œcup goalkeeper.â€ Up front it will be a straight choice between John Carew and Emile Heskey with the England man probably the favourite despite the big Norwegian claiming a brace in the week. (Villa are 11/1 to win both halves.)
Of course the big question for the Aston Villa defence is can they stop Wayne Rooney? The superlatives have been justifiably trotted out on a regular basis in recent weeks as Wazza has hit the best goal scoring form of his career. Rooney was uncharacteristically quiet at old club Everton last Saturday but either side of his Goodison Park performance; he was the main man against both AC Milan and West Ham.
Sir Alex Ferguson has some selection headaches for the Wembley final after drastically changing how he treats this competition in the semi-final. The two-legged clash with Manchester City arguably lifted the current Cristiano Ronaldo-less United team on to a new level. But, Fergusonâ€™s desire to see off City meant he abandoned his policy of playing youngsters in the Carling Cup to make sure Carlos Tevez and co were humbled.
Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand miss out through injury as does Nani through a suspension picked up in the 1-1 draw between these two teams 18 days before this match. Andersonâ€™s season was declared over due to a knee injury picked up against West Ham on Tuesday and Fergie has hinted that Darron Gibson, Jonny Evans and Rafael will all start.
Ferguson may look to match Villaâ€™s formation by playing Dimitar Berbatov, who despite not living up to his huge transfer fee, scored at Everton last week and also quietly impressed against the Hammers. Luis Antonio Valencia is a key man after some scintillating performances on the right wing against AC Milan and West Ham whilst the experience of Paul Scholes or Michael Owen off the bench could be crucial. (Manchester United are 8/5 to score in both halves.)
The goalkeeping situation is the real dilemma for the Manchester United boss. Edwin van der Sar played the semi-final and his experience and calm demeanour has also been noted in recent weeks. Tomasz Kuszczak played in two rounds earlier this season whilst Ben Foster has played one game in the Carling Cup and famously secured the trophy, with the aid of his IPod, in the penalty shoot-out against Spurs a year ago. (Manchester United are 10/1 to win the cup on penalties.)
It is difficult to bet against Manchester United and Ferguson in a major final, this being the 27th his career. The Great Scot summed up the mouth watering clash:
â€œThe final has a great attraction to it, we recognise the challenge of Villa. The final wonâ€™t reach the emotional stage of the semi-final ties. Itâ€™s a different game, but itâ€™s a cup final with two good teams. The pitch is much better than it was last year. Itâ€™s improved, so it should be a good game. The last time we played Villa in a final they beat us 3-1 in 1994, it cost us a Treble. I hope itâ€™s involved in a Treble this time too. We hope that we pick the right time and perform properly.â€
101gg predicts: Aston Villa 3 â€“ Manchester United 2 (54/1)
Full match odds here.