Aston Villa v Manchester United, Premier League, February 10, 2010
Aston Villa take on Manchester United at Villa Park this week having already beaten the champions 1-nil at the Theatre of Dreams back in December, and coming into the match boasting the best defensive record in the division having conceded only 18 goals all term, and only seven on home soil all season. (Villa are 4/1 to keep a clean sheet, 1/4 against.)
However Villa will arrive into the dress rehearsal for the Carling Cup final concerned by their recent for which saw the Villains drop four points in two goalless matches with Arsenal (home) and Spurs (away) in recent weeks. Those results have seen Villa drop to seventh in the table, behind Tottenham and Manchester City, and without doubt the Randy Lerner will need his side to pick up the pace in the second half of the season if they are to fight for a Champions League, or even top six, berth. (Villa are 5/8 to finish in the top six.)
The brightest light for the Villains is striker Gabby Agbonlahor (14/5 to score). The young England striker netted the winner at Old Trafford in the corresponding fixture just seven weeks ago, and the forward has maintained his goal-scoring form, most recently by grabbing a brace at Craven Cottage to sink Fulham.
Agbonlahor’s usual strike-partner Emile Heskey (4/1 to score) is a major doubt for the match having been withdrawn from proceedings at White Hart Lane last weekend. Norwegian targetman John Carew (7/2 to score) is a natural like-for-like replacement, but considering the attacking threat that Manchester United possess, O’Neill may be swayed into selecting a slightly less adventurous line-up from the get-go by placing an extra body in midfield against the Red Devils.
And Villa have the midfielders to compensate in a 4-5-1 formation. Ashley Young (5/1 to score) and Stewart Downing are more than talented enough to patrol the wide areas, while player of the season James Milner (5/1 to score) and cohorts Stiliyan Petrov and/or Steve Sidwell can look to dominate the match from a more central position.
At the back Villa should have little pre-match headaches, as the tried and trusted back five of Friedlel, Young, Dunne (12/1 to score), Collins, Cuellar asked to go about their normal duties as they have done all season.
With six wins and a draw in their last seven Premier League matches though, Manchester United are flying at present, and Aston Villa will need to be on their A-game if they are to get anything out of this match.
As so often happens, come the business end of the season and United appear able to seamlessly step their performances up a gear. This has been no more obvious than with the form of star player Wayne Rooney (6/5 to score) â€“ the England forward has scored an incredible scored eight goals in his last six matches in all competitions, and of specific concern for the Villains is Rooney’s record of five goals in his last six starts against the claret and blues.
Rooney’s super form of late has been healthily supported by the emergence of Luis Nani (9/2 to score) in midfield. After far too long at Old Trafford the Portuguese winger has finally begun to assert himself in Manchester, and abandoning the nonsense flicks, tricks and over-hit crosses for more sensible decisions, he is beginning to show the promise which saw Fergie splash out around Â£14 million back in 2007.
Spreading round the love, Antonio Valencia has performed admirably down the right hand side since walking into the irreplaceable shoes of Cristiano Ronaldo at the start of the season. Elsewhere, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher appear to have struck up a perfectly-balanced chord in recent week that has seen the pair divvy up their defensive and attacking roles to perfection in the centre of midfield. (Manchester United are 5/1 to win both halves.)
At the back, Fergie will need to decide whether to recall Nemanja Vidic at the heart of his defence following his latest calf problems. With AC Milan I the Champions League just around the corner, Ferguson may err on the side of caution and give the Serbian another night off, in which case Wes Brown and Jonny Evans could continue as United’s centre-halves. New England skipper Rio Ferdinand remains unavailable following his suspension for thumping Hull’s Craig Fagan. (United are 8/5 to keep a clean sheet, 4/7 against.)
Although Villa walked away with the spoils earlier on in the season, Manchester United head into this match as the form team, and with Wayne Rooney on fire it seems difficult to think that Villa will be able to stop their opponents from scoring. Villa, still dreaming of joining the ranks of the Premier League big boys, have it all to play for too though, and they will be determined to raise themselves for the occasion. This match could go either way, but the common-sense makes it very difficult to beat against United.
101gg predicts: Aston Villa 1 â€“ Manchester United 2 (17/2)
Full match odds here.