Domestic football is back! After a break that rather inconveniently positioned itself directly after Manchester United's two best performances of the season, the Reds resume their Premier League campaign at home to Aston Villa on Saturday. The Villans have been in some rather resurgent form since the reform of Tim 'Four Four Two' Sherwood, though not so resurgent that they managed to avoid defeat at home to Swansea in their last outing. They're still only three points clear of the relegation zone, and United really ought to be able to win again.
Robin van Persie and Jonny Evans are injured and suspended respectively, whle James Wilson and Luke Shaw are both doubts. Chris Smalling is fit to play despite being forced off for England with illness on Tuesday, though he could well lose his place to Marcos Rojo anyway, with the Argentine back to full fitness after warming the bench against Liverpool.
Villa have a string of defensive players out injured, including Nathan Baker, Aly Cissokho, Chris Herd and Philippe Senderos, while former United wide man Kieran Richardson will also miss out. Tom Cleverley (we'd forgotten he'd existed too) is ineligible against his parent club, while centre-backs Ron Vlaar and Jores Okore both face late fitness tests.
On the ball, Villa are an extremely direct team, and look to get it forward as soon as possible. Don't expect them to stylishly play it out from the back; do expect them to try and create plenty of one-on-one battles out wide and deliver the ball into the penalty area. Charles N'Zogbia and Scott Sinclair are both pretty one-dimensional wingers, but that isn't to say they can't be effective.
In the centre of defence, United's could well have to get physical against powerful centre-foward Christian Benteke, while the pace of Marcos Rojo could come in handy against his strike partner Gabriel Agbonlahor, who represents the Villans' biggest threat on balls over the top. United will have to try and get tight to England international midfielder Fabian Delph to stop him hitting the key pass early.
Villa's biggest defensive flaw is their lack of holding midfielder, which can result in big gaps being left between their midfield and defence, particularly when they're subject to a counter-attack. Though Carlos Sánchez played anchorman for Colombia at the World Cup, he's only got Fabian Delph alongside him for company in this match. The result is that clever movement between the lines can cause them big problems. In this regard, Juan Mata's drifting off the right could well be key.
Against an opponent that leaves space in such areas, deploying a more technical player in attacking midfield than Marouane Fellaini may be sensible. But even if he does play, his mere presence between the lines will force Sherwood's midfield to watch him closely, affording more space for Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera to dictate from deep. Assuming United pass the ball with the same pace and purpose that they have done in their ast couple of games, they ought to be able to pick up three points at Old Trafford.