Aston Villa won their first league game since late September on Wednesday, a nervy but ultimately convincing victory over a pesky Blackpool side. The first half was less than stellar but aside from a ball that ricocheted off of the hand of James Collins and into Villa's net - no, seriously - the second half was all Villa. There were good feelings all around after the final whistle and a weight that had been building for nearly a month and a half was lifted off of our collective backs. So, what's Aston Villa's reward for such a feel-good win?
Manchester United currently sit second in the table four points behind Chelsea, and though several of their six draws have drawn grumbles from their supporters they remain the only team in the league that has yet to lose a game. It's been an...interesting year for the Red Devils to this point, with Wayne Rooney being awful and then injured and then as good as sold and then Manchester United for life and then awful again and now apparently an American or something like that. Meanwhile Dimitar Berbatov is playing pretty much the same way he has for years but now that he's scoring goals slightly more often people are heaping praise upon him. Chicharito has stepped in with Rooney away and while he's performed better than many expected he's still pretty much exactly as annoying as I'd expected. Which is really, really annoying.
Manchester United's midfield presents some pretty interesting matchup problems for Villa, and by "interesting" I mean terrifying. Darren Fletcher is pretty much everything that Stephen Ireland is not and most of the things that he is. Paul Scholes is a legend, and not in the way people usually say that when alking about footballers; he is a real, honest-to-God legend in the sport and at at almost 36 years of age he's still a damned fine player to boot. On the wings we're almost certain to see Nani on the right and either Ji-Sung Park or Antonio Valencia on the left, but Anderson, Parice Evra and even Ryan Giggs are possibilities out wide as well. Nani is a scary player, probably the most physically gifted winger Villa have faced all season. It's reasonable to think that Stephen Warnock will be just a bit closer to his second suspension for accumulation of the season.
Manchester United's back line is as good as any in the Premier League, with (an apparently fully fit) Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic manning the center and Patrice Evra and Rafael likely to get the nod at the full back spots. Edwin Van der Sar looks to have lost a step but he's still one of the better keepers in the league. Scoring against Manchester United has not been as difficult this season as it has in years past, but make no mistake; in terms of sheer talent their ability to prevent the opposition from scoring is outstanding. Given Villa's struggles in that particular department so far this year and the outlook is not exactly rosy.
Put simply, Manchester United are a very, very good team. They're significantly better than Aston Villa. But they're struggling with injuries, illness and a star player that appears to have gone a bit off his nut as of late. And while Manchester United are an elite team that are capable of putting up goals, they have not shown themselves to be the offensive behemoth that a club like Chelsea looked when they rolled into Villa Park not so long ago. Now clearly the point is not that each game against superior competition is equally winnable; there are far too many variables at play for that to be the case. The point is that Villa have the defensive capabilities necessary to neutralize their attack and the quick-strike players in the attacking end to possibly sneak one going the other way. With the boost of confidence coming off the win over Blackpool, who knows? I think most of us would agree that this squad hasn't played to their full potential for most of the season.
On the other hand, Barry Bannan and Ciaran Clark will once again be starting in the midfield. Gabriel Agbonlahor is likely to get his first start in quite some time and it's anyone's guess how effective he will be. This could still go really poorly. That's kind of the nature of this season; with so many young, unknown quantities in so many hey positions, any week is anyone's guess. I believe in the kids, ultimately. I think they'll all end up being quality players, and I think a few of them will end up being very special players. But they're also kids, and they're going to be playing against Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher and Rio Ferdinand. Maybe that scares them to death. But maybe it gives them a boost. It's impossible to say. That's part of the fun of going with the kids; when they play like it it's epected and when they don't it's thrilling.
Manchester United are more talented, deeper and better in most every facet of the game. By all rights, they should be the favorites. And they are. But Aston Villa are a quality team with the talent to get a result here. So much will depend on Gabriel Agbonlahor's performance, and if he really is back to 100% things look quite a bit brighter. Perhaps I'm still high off the good vibes from Wednesday, but I think a draw is probably the most likely outcome here. Lesser teams than Villa have earned the same result and United are a bit on the ropes at the moment in terms of the squad's health. United will almost certainly come out looking to attack, and Villa are at their best when they're playing back and waiting for the counter. If Gabby is Gabby and Ashley gets himself into space a bit, this could be quite a bit of fun.
Of course, it could also suck horribly. We'll see.