Ah, yes. The fixture at Old Trafford. Aston Villa have won this fixture once since the inception of the Premier League. It's only finished as a draw three times. Manchester United have been victorious18 times.
While Villa's road record against Manchester United is dismal, it's not an aberration compared to their overall record against the Red Devils in the Premier League era. The Villans have taken just 16 of 117 points (W2 D10 L27) available from the 39 league matches between the teams since August 1992. But, on the plus side, one of those points was in most recent match.
December's clash at Villa Park that ended in a one-all draw featured goals from Christian Benteke and Radamel Falcao. It also saw Gabby Agbonlahor sent off for a "foul" on former teammate Ashely Young. The red was later rescinded, but the damage was already done as Villa were forced to play defensively the rest of the way. However, it was still a good point considering the history between the clubs.
At that time of the year, Louis van Gaal's side were considerably less intimidating than they are now. One similarity is that the obsession with possession is still there - in December, United saw 65 percent of the ball. We'll most likely see a similar statistic this Saturday. At times they've looked toothless, but since they picked apart Tottenham Hotspur on March 15th, United have looked downright deadly.
One key is that Wayne Rooney is playing in attack again. He's able to play in midfield, and said he will do whatever it takes to help the team win, but he's best utilised as a central striker. That's bad news, as Aston Villa are probably his favourite team to play against. Well, either Villa or Newcastle United, as Rooney has scored 12 league goals against each side. In his last six games against Villa at Old Trafford, he's scored eight goals -- bagging four braces.
In their last game, a 2-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield, van Gaal went with Rooney up top alone. Part of this was due to wanting to play more defensively on the road against Liverpool, another factor was the poor form of Falcao and Robin van Persie being injured. It's not saying much, but Falcao had a good international break, scoring two goals against Bahrain and one against Kuwait. With Villa's attack less likely to worry United, we could see Falcao paired with Rooney up top. Juan Mata scored both goals in the win against the Reds, and should retain his place. The unknown factor here is Angel Di Maria. It's been a forgettable season for the Argentine, but could still get the start in this match.
Looking at Villa, the injury list from hell continues to get longer. Jores Okore hurt his knee in training for Denmark, and is unavailable. Ron Vlaar is back for this match, so he should play. Ciaran Clark wasn't booked in the loss to Swansea so he isn't suspended at least, as even back-four utility man Matt Lowton is injured. Alan Hutton and Leandro Bacuna should start at the fullback positions, but the other centre back remains a mystery. Will it be Carlos Sánchez playing there?
The 4-4-2 under Sherwood has been solid, but it showed its weakness against a team that likes to keep the ball. United will force Villa to defend for long periods of time, but a strength of the formation is when you want to play on the counter attack. Fabian Delph is a perfect fit in this system. His ability to both attack and defend, as well as his work rate, means he's one of the first names on the teamsheet. Tom Cleverley has partnered Delph a few times now under Sherwood, but may not play due to an injury. Ashley Westwood isn't a counter attacking midfielder by any stretch of the imagination, but he could be called into action due to necessity. Scott Sinclair's pace on the left wing will be important, and Charles N'Zogbia seems to have a firm foothold the right wing spot.
Up top, Gabby Agbonlahor's pace is crucial. If he can stretch the defence, it could open up space for Christian Benteke. The Belgian has been in better form since scoring the penalty that won the league match against West Bromwich Albion, and scored over the international break as well. It's probably cliché to say that he needs to score for Villa to win, but I'll say it. Christian Benteke needs to score if Aston Villa are to beat Manchester United. Of course his other contributions like holding up the ball and defending set pieces will be necessary, but he must find the back of the net. Possibly multiple times.
We know that Villa won't see a lot of the ball. It's going to have to be an inspired defensive performance. But hit for two goals on the counter, and a win is possible. Especially if Villa score an early goal. Some may argue that there is a more important match coming up against QPR and that we should save the more important players for then, but getting throttled by United could really hurt the confidence.
Manchester United (4-3-1-2):
David de Gea; Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Daley Blind; Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera, Maroane Fellaini; Juan Mata; Radamel Falcao, Wayne Rooney.
Aston Villa (4-4-2):
Brad Guzan; Alan Hutton, Ron Vlaar, Ciaran Clark, Leandro Bacuna; Charles N'Zogbia, Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood, Scott Sinclair, Christian Benteke, Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Who would you start if you were Tim Sherwood? Let us know in the comments!