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Starting XI: Manchester United vs. Aston Villa

The Reds kick off 2021 right in the thick of the league title race

Chelsea v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Everything that you need to know ahead of Friday’s match:

(1) Manchester United left it late, but a Marcus Rashford goal deep into second-half stoppage time saw off a stubborn Wolves outfit. That result extends United’s unbeaten run to nine in the Premier League. On the injury front, it was a case of mixed news: Aaron Wan-Bissaka returned to the starting lineup, while Victor Lindelöf dropped out of the side altogether after re-injuring his back against Leicester City.

(2) Cool stat on Rashford’s late winner:

(3) Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the fixtures coming thick and fast during the festive period:

We made six changes and that will stand us in good stead. It’s Friday night again now [against Aston Villa], so hopefully they don’t overdo the celebrations on Thursday as it’s New Year's Eve. They are happy with the win, the confidence that gives you and the mentality and attitude that gives you. They will recover well for Friday.

(4) It was no surprise to see Edinson Cavani replace the up-and-down Anthony Martial at forward on Tuesday night. Now, the question becomes how big of a workload is the 33-year-old ready to assume? While Cavani looks more and more impressive all the time, don’t be surprised if Martial returns to the lineup against Aston Villa as the Uruguayan may not yet be ready for back-to-back starts on short rest.

(5) Few tipped Aston Villa to be this season’s surprise package after the Midlands club dodged relegation by just a single point in 2019/20. But the board’s faith in manager Dean Smith and shrewd summer moves — both incomings and hanging on to stars like Jack Grealish — have paid huge dividends this term. That 7-2 win over Liverpool back in October got everyone’s attention and Villa have moved from strength to strength ever since.

(6) Aston Villa move the ball forward quickly, usually down the left side where Grealish works his magic. Not surprisingly, he (again) ranks as the Premier League’s most-fouled player, as defenders often resort to chopping him down when he’s running with the ball. Manchester United desperately need Aaron Wan-Bissaka back at his best to deal with the threat of Grealish down his side.

(7) In Emiliano Martinez, Arsenal’s loss is Aston Villa’s gain. The Argentine goalkeeper moved to Villa Park for £17 million this summer and now leads the Premier League with eight clean sheets. Aston Villa used four goalkeepers a season ago and paid the price with inconsistent performances and a staggering 67 goals conceded. Martinez has settled the position and the Villains now boast the second-best defensive record in the Premier League.

(8) Part of that defensive improvement is down to a more compact style and the signing of right back Matty Cash. In fact, before Chelsea scored in Monday’s 1-1 draw, Aston Villa had not allowed a goal in more than 400 minutes of league play. Cash easily made the jump up from the Championship and has made his mark with solid tackling and intuitive positioning. With Matt Targett on the left and Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa at center back, the 23-year-old Cash completed Villa’s backline puzzle. Plus, Douglas Luiz and John McGinn provide protection from the midfield pivot.

(9) Ollie Watkins, signed for a club-record £33 million after leading the Championship in goals scored a season ago, has proven to be worth every penny. Even though he’s in the midst of a seven-match scoreless spell, Watkins still impacts the game through relentless pressing, hard work running the channels, and holding the ball up for Grealish or Anwar El Ghazi. If he ever becomes a top-class finisher, this will be one of the best players in the Premier League.

(10) Aston Villa maintained their fine form with a 1-1 draw at Chelsea on Monday. That result lifted the club up to fifth in the table and has the Villa Park faithful dreaming of Europe in 2021. Against Chelsea, Villa’s Bertrand Traore often failed to track back, allowing Ben Chilwell and Christian Pulisic to overload Matty Cash. If Traore is back in the lineup on New Year’s Day, either Luke Shaw or Alex Telles should look to exploit this lack of concentration by getting forward and overlapping with Marcus Rashford.

(11) Dean Smith on Manchester United:

We’re looking forward to it. We had a good result [at Old Trafford] last year with a good performance in a 2-2 draw. They’ve added to their squad since and they’re a strong team. With our results — against Liverpool, going to Arsenal, Leicester away, and getting a point here [at Chelsea] — we’ve proven to ourselves that we can go and compete against anybody. We’ll have total respect for them, but we certainly won’t be fearing them.