Aston Villa look to keep the positive movement going tomorrow, but to do so they'll have to hold off the unbeaten league-leaders Manchester United on the Red Devils' home pitch. Villa emerged victorious from this fixture last season, with a 21st minute goal from Gabriel Agbonlahor being all that was needed for Villa to secure their first league victory at Old Trafford since 1983. Pointing out that a lot has changed over the past year-plus would be both obvious and an understatement; a new manager, key players moved on and big signings brought in and a new style of play accompanying the changes in personnel.
Manchester United meanwhile are Manchester United, largely the same team they've been for the majority of Sir Alex Ferguson's time at the helm. They're a team with a strong and technically proficient spine, speed and delivery on the wings and clinical, complete forwards leading the line. There's not a lot of mystery to how United operate, but they've been doing it at a ridiculously high level for as long as I've been alive. This current iteration isn't the best Manchester United we've seen, but they're good enough to sit at the top of the Premier League table, five points ahead of second place Arsenal, without a loss in 23 league games. They haven't always made things easy for themselves, but to this point they've managed to take points from every game and they've thoroughly dominated often enough that their standing in the table seems more than legitimate.
One of United's closer calls came of course against Aston Villa, when a side dominated by youth managed to take a 2-0 lead at Villa park before the visitors fought their way back to end the game on level terms. It was an early glimpse of what we've seen more often as of late, and though the fact that United were able to snatch a point at the end it was by far the most encouraging game of the Houlllier era to that point. The good feelings were short lived however, and the point that seemed such a disappointment was the last Villa would see for a month as their death spiral began in earnest. That's all (hopefully) behind us now, and this match is a golden opportunity to build upon recent successes. Manchester United have scuffled a bit the last few times out, barely slipping past Southampton in the FA Cup and needing every last minute to overcome a 2-0 deficit and win against Blackpool. It's tough to call two games that United ended up winning a dip in form, but there's at least a whiff of vulnerability about United at the moment.
Aston Villa, meanwhile, are riding high, winners of their last three and undefeated in their last five, at the moment closer to 7th than to the drop. If the 1-0 victory over Manchester City at Villa Park was a turning point, defeating United at Old Trafford would be an absolute sea change. Even a draw (depending on its circumstances of course) would do little to derail the positivity currently surrounding the club. The key as always to keep things close, but that's a much taller order against the Red Devils than other clubs. I would not be the least bit surprised to see four central defenders once again deployed along the back line, and at the very least I'd expect to see one of Ciaran Clark or Carlos Cueller at left back. The central midfield will be another position of interest; Jean Makoun's injury status is at the moment unknown, but if he's fit he will of course be expected to play. It also would not surprise me at all to see Ciaran Clark in the defensive midfield once again. In other words, I expect a thoroughly conservative style from Aston Villa and an emphasis on the counter. It's what we've seen on many occasions against more potent opposition. At the same time, Houllier has done pretty much the opposite of what I've expected from him so often that at this point I'm not entirely sure what to expect.
What's clear is that Villa are rightfully very much the underdogs in this match. Manchester United might have had a bit of difficulty their last few times out, but they're still one of the best teams in the league. Dimitar Berbatov is playing out of his mind, Nani has been absolutely brilliant on the wing and Wayne Rooney appears to be on his way to finding his old form. For Villa to win it's likely going to take as close to a perfect game as they're capable of playing. Luckily, we've seen them do that fairly recently. It's a longshot, but a win in this fixture heading into the softest stretch of schedule Villa will see all season would be a tremendous boost towards a top-half finish.