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Starting XI: Manchester United vs. Aston Villa

A tricky December starts with a visit from Aston Villa

Aston Villa v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

After a 6,000 mile roundtrip across Europe, Manchester United return to Old Trafford this weekend to take on Aston Villa. Here’s everything that you need to know ahead of the match.

(1) On Thursday, a Manchester United squad made up mostly of U23 players narrowly lost 2-1 in Kazakhstan. For most of the match, the kids played pretty well — but a few late breakdowns cost the young Reds. With a difficult December about to kick off in the Premier League, there’s not a whole lot to take from this Europa League loss to FC Astana. Luke Shaw is back and Jesse Lingard scored for the first time in forever, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will surely field an entirely different team against Aston Villa.

(2) With Ole and the U23s in Nur-Sultan, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna stayed in Manchester to get the first-team regulars ready for Sunday. One of the few veterans to travel, though, was Luke Shaw. The 24-year-old hadn’t played since picking up a hamstring injury in August, but came through 90 minutes at the Astana Arena with no ill effects. Still, Brandon Williams looks to have jumped Shaw in the left-back pecking order and should be in line for another start this weekend.

(3) If Scott McTominay remains out with an ankle injury, Solskjaer should seriously reconsider Andreas Pereira’s place in midfield. Although Fred continues to show some signs of life, Pereira turned in a truly wretched performance at Sheffield United last weekend. It was the kind of display that consigns a player to the bench for the foreseeable future. Nemanja Matić would at least add some nous to the engine room, although he might be on his way out...

(4) And the Paul Pogba saga rolls on. Just this week, reports from Spain claimed that Pogba was fully recovered from his ankle injury and refusing to play for Manchester United again. The player fired back with an Instagram post that showed his ankle still heavily wrapped and receiving treatment. Then, on Thursday, Pogba flew back to Manchester from his rehab base in Miami, sparking fresh hopes of an imminent return. The smart money is on Pogba suiting up for the Manchester derby next weekend.

(5) Aston Villa’s 2-0 win over Newcastle on Monday pulled the Midlands club four points clear of the relegation zone. It’s been an uneven season for Villa in their return to the top-flight, although Dean Smith’s side sits just three points behind Manchester United. The middle of the Premier League is a jumbled mess with only six points separating 5th place from 17th.

(6) After winning promotion from the Championship, Aston Villa spent the summer spending their newfound riches. Tyrone Mings signed permanently from Bournemouth, Matt Targett and Ezri Konsa joined him in defense, and Wesley, Jota, and Trezeguet strengthened the attack. Big investment hasn’t always been the soundest strategy for newly-promoted sides, but Villa’s shopping spree looks like decent business so far.

(7) Jack Grealish is the undoubted star of Aston Villa’s show. He returned from a calf injury to spur Villa to victory against Newcastle, creating six chances and one assist. As Grealish goes, so goes Villa. Manager Dean Smith said it best afterwards:

He’s a constant threat and he moves around the pitch really well into positions where people don’t want to come and tackle him. The opposition get frustrated and two free kicks against him end up with two goals for us. Knowing Jack, he’ll be disappointed that he hasn’t got on the scoresheet himself.

(8) One of Villa’s biggest challenges, though, has been replacing the prolific Tammy Abraham. On loan from Chelsea last season, Abraham ran roughshod over the Championship — much like he did the Premier League in the opening two months — and carried the team with his goals and movement. Without him, the goals are more spread around this season — Wesley leads the club with four, while six midfielders have chipped in with multiple goals, too.

(9) Left-back Matt Targett shrugged off a concussion at Wolves to start against Newcastle. But, after being hit in the throat during the match, Targett was shown throwing up on the pitch. It’s been a rough few weeks for the 24-year-old. Fortunately for Villa, Smith says that Targett is feeling much better and should be fine for the trip to Old Trafford.

(10) Sunday’s match kicks off a brutal week for both sides. After traveling to Manchester United, Aston Villa go to Chelsea in midweek before returning home to host high-flying Leicester City. United, meanwhile, face Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday — featuring the dramatic return of José Mourinho to Old Trafford — and then the Manchester derby at the weekend.

(11) Stat of the week: Marcus Rashford finally looks to be stringing together some consistency in front of goal, scoring ten times in his last eleven matches.