Manchester United trek south to Villa Park for a Saturday evening Premier League clash with Aston Villa. These two sides met twice last season and during this same fixture in December, a Phil Jones first-half strike was enough for a 1-0 United victory. In the reverse fixture at Old Trafford in April, a Wayne Rooney brace led the Red Devils to a comfortable 4-0 defeat of the Villans. United are unbeaten in their past sixteen matches at Villa Park.
Form Guide: United enter the weekend top of the Premier League table with 24 points from 10 matches. They are a point clear of Chelsea and two clear of Manchester City. Since the loss to Tottenham Hotspur in late September, United have won seven successive matches in the competitions that anybody cares about (Premier League and UEFA Champions League). Their most recent victories occurred on Wednesday versus Portuguese side SC Braga on Wednesday and versus Arsenal last Saturday. The Red Devils have already clinched top of their Champions League group with two group fixtures to spare.
Form Guide: Villa currently sit 17th in the table with 9 points from 10 matches and they currently are 4 points clear of the relegation zone. If you include the Captial One Cup, Paul Lambert's side have won two successive matches while they are unbeaten in their past two league fixtures as well. Their most recent match occurred last weekend when they defeated Sunderland 1-0 at the Stadium of Light.
Team News: There are a plethora of injuries in the squad: Darren Bent, Charles N'Zogbia, Gary Gardner, and Richard Dunne are out for the match while the likes of Joe Bennett, Chris Herd, and Nathan Baker are all doubts.
United: Villa are a side where winning the midfield battle against isn't a huge concern and they also like to use width. Therefore, it may be best to anticipate Sir Alex Ferguson not using a diamond shape and instead, he likely opts for a system that uses wide attackers -- such as in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. In goal, either David de Gea or Anders Lindegaard will feature while Rio Ferdinand will be partnered by either Evans or Chris Smalling in central-defense. Expect Rafael at right-back and Patrice Evra at left-back. It's possible, thought, that Alexander Buttner could rotate in and give the latter a rest.
In midfield, Michael Carrick is certain and he could be partnered by either Tom Cleverley or Paul Scholes in a midfield duo. Something to factor in is that the latter hasn't featured in a few weeks while Cleverley could be possibly be used next Wednesday for England's friendly with Sweden. If a midfield trio is used, Rooney or Fletcher are possible as well. Anderson and Ryan Giggs are likely to be rested after both went the full 90 minutes on Wednesday night in Portugal.
In attack, Robin van Persie will be the fulcrum in attack while Rooney likely plays in behind him. If Wazza is given a rest, then Danny Welbeck is possible to partner RvP. Out wide, Antonio Valencia is the anticipated right-winger while Ashley Young is expected to face his old club while positioned on the left flank.
Villa: As of late, Lambert has been deploying his side in a 4-2-3-1 shape. Brad Guzan is the No.1 while Ron Vlaar and Ciaran Clark are the expected center-back duo. Matthew Lowton is the first-choice right-back while Bennett is the first-choice left-back. However, the latter picked up a knock last weekend at Sunderland so Eric Lichaj could deputise.
Fabian Delph and Karim El Ahmadi have been first-choice in the double-pivot but Barry Bannan and Ashley Westwood are possible after the latter duo performed admirably last weekend in Villa's win. Stephen Ireland is anticipated as the most advanced central-midfielder but Brett Holman and Gabriel Agbonlahor are possible too. The latter is probably going to positioned out wide to the left though while Marc Albrighton or Andreas Weimann are in contention on the right flank. Christian Benteke is the big man up front.
* A brief introduction to Villa and Paul Lambert: While at Norwich City, Lambert tinkered quite a bit with his formations as he changed his team's shape depending on the opposition. He's an astute tactician and he should be given a ton of credit for the Canaries overachieving in recent years. The manager, though, is now in debut season at Villa and as of late, he's generally stuck to a 4-2-3-1 shape.
Benteke is a very physical center-forward -- third most aerial duels won this season in the Premier League behind Andy Carroll and Peter Crouch -- and he holds the ball up well. The Belgian will also have to be accounted for on set-pieces as well. Albrighton does well to whip in crosses from out wide while Agbonlahor tends to receive the ball near the touchline and then use his pace to dribble inward towards goal. Ireland is mercurial but on his day, he can be a handful. The players in the double-pivots are nothing special -- Bannan, though, is a possible exception as the youngster's range of passing is impressive as is his set-piece delivery. Clark and Vlaar have been a solid duo in the back and the full-backs are asked to motor forward in order to provide width in attack. Guzan has been very solid in goal this season.
* Is Villa vulnerable down their left-side?: With Agbonlahor's tendency to cut inside, and with Lichaj possibly deputising for Bennett at left-back -- the American is a more natural right-back -- can United exploit Villa's left-side? Sir Alex's side undoubtedly focus their attack down their right side as Valencia and Rafael have formed a very nice partnership. In recent weeks, they've exploited the weaknesses of Chelsea and Arsenal down this same flank. When United win possession, and if Agbohlahor is caught in a relatively inside position, the opportunity will be there to break and create 2 v 1 overloads on the right. Rooney can contribute to this overload as well when he drifts wide. This may be an avenue for United to create consistent chances.
* Tempo: United are obviously heavy favorites for this contest and they likely will see much more of the ball than their opponents. However, in these sort of matches, they can often be stagnant and this was certainly evident at the midweek versus Braga. The Red Devils dominated possession in Portugal but their tempo was slow and they did nothing with the ball until urgency set in when they went down. Against Villa, they will need to circulate the ball quicker while the deep-lying playmakers -- Carrick and either Scholes or Cleverley -- need to continually switch the point of attack in an attempt to create gaps and imbalances in Villa's shape. Good movement up front from RvP, Rooney, and Young will be key as will Scholes -- if he starts -- arrowing long diagonal balls out to the flanks. In order to prevent a stagnant game, United will need to keep their foot on the gas pedal in order to keep the tempo high.
KO: 5:30pm GMT, 12:30pm EST | Villa Park
Live TV: Sky Sports 2 (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.A.)
Referee: Kevin Friend
Odds: Aston Villa 5/1, Draw 10/3, Manchester United 1/2