Premier League leaders Manchester United host Aston Villa for a Tuesday evening match at Old Trafford. The two sides played an absolute cracker of a match at Villa Park on 13 November, 2010, when United stunned the Villans with late goals by Federico Macheda and Nemanja Vidic, earning themselves a draw. The Villans are unbeaten in their last five matches in all competitions, which includes a victory over Manchester City. Despite their recent good form, Gerard Houllier's tenure at Aston Villa has been shaky at best. After finishing 6th in the table the past three seasons, Villa's current standing of 13th isn't the performance level that their supporters have come to expect. United are five points clear of their nearest title contending rival Arsenal. At Old Trafford, United have earned 34 out a possible 36 points, while Villa have two away victories and nine points in twelve matches away from Villa Park.
Aston Villa typically play with a '4-4-1-1' shape. At times, it can vary as it might look like a '4-1-4-1' if Stiliyan Petrov plays deep as a holding central midfielder right in front of his defense, or it can look like a '4-2-3-1.' The one constant is that they typically play with one man up front. Their style of play is very dependent on their wide players (Stewart Downing, Marc Albrighton, and Gabriel Agbonlahor). The wingers try to find space and and whip dangerous crosses into the box. Playing with width is a foundation to their success, as United supporters might remember after the brilliant play of Albrighton and Downing in their previous matchup. Ashley Young's recent role has been playing centrally in support of the lone striker. However, Young often drifts wide from his initial central position and is a creative force for their attack from wide areas on the pitch.
With the quality depth that Villa have in their midfield, which now includes U.S. international Michael Bradley on loan, it's a tough task to project their lineup. Players like Downing and Young are flexible, and have played both wide and central this season. Young likely will be featured in the center, withdrawn and in support of 24-million pound signee Darren Bent. Again, look for Young to drift wide from his central positioning on the pitch and to link play from there. Bent has already yielded his influence with a game-winning goal versus Manchester City in his Villa debut. On the left, either Agbonlahor or Downing will likely be on that flank. On the opposite side, either Alrighton or Downing are likely to be called upon. Petrov probably will be paired in the central midfield with either Nigel Reo-Coker or Downing. Bradley or Barry Bannan are less likely options for Tuesday. Look for James Collins and Richard Dunne as the center-back pairing. The Villans have been troubled at times this season at fullback. My guess at right-back is Kyle Walker, and Ciaran Clark at left-back. Brad Friedel is certain to be in goal.
United have a few injury concerns, especially on defense. Rafael suffered a concussion last week at Blackpool and his status is currently uncertain. Rio Ferdinand has missed the past 3 matches due to a nagging groin injury, and if he's unable to go, look for Chris Smalling to be his deputy. 36-year old Paul Scholes may be rested on Tuesday after playing 90 minutes last week versus both Southampton and Blackpool. Ryan Giggs and Nani have logged heavy minutes this past month, due to lack of recent depth in wide players. Unless Park Ji-Sung is available after returning from his national team duties at the Asian Cup, I anticipate Giggs and Nani starting out wide as usual. Michael Carrick's status is uncertain as well, due to an ankle injury.
*EDIT* It appears that Ferdinand and Rafael are available versus Villa. "We should have our back four back against Villa," according to Fergie on the club's website (http://www.manutd.com). "Vidic should be alright. Rio started running on Thursday and hopefully will be okay by Tuesday. Rafael should also be okay, he got the all-clear on Friday and Evra had a family bereavement so we left him out at Southampton.”
This Villa match and the away match at Wolves on Saturday are vital. Anything less than three points from either match will be a massive disappointment, as the fixture list looks to get a bit tougher after these upcoming two matches. A showdown with 'Citeh' looms as does United's first Champions League knock-out match versus Marseille. I think Sir Alex Ferguson goes with a '4-4-2' at home versus an opponent who focuses their play out wide. Here's my guess at lineups for Tuesday evening's match...
A fews keys for United in this match:
* Be wary of Young drifting between the lines, it needs to sorted out between the central midfielders and defenders as to who picks him up... both when and where. Young drags defenders out of position at times when he moves wide from his initial central position.
* The wide players need to be contained. Slow them down, and Villa's attack likely sputters. Nani might need to track back more than he typically does, and if he doesn't, then he needs to force Villa's wide players to be wary of him. This might pin back Villa's wide player on that side.
* Bent can be quiet for 89 minutes and 59 seconds in a match, but still end up influencing it with a single wonder moment. He's a natural goal-scorer so Vidic and Ferdinand (or Smalling) cannot lose focus for even a single moment.
Current odds: United 3/10, Villa 9/1, Draw 9/2
Prediction: Manchester United 3-1 Aston Villa