BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United nutmegs Richard Dunne of Aston Villa during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Manchester United at Villa Park on December 3, 2011 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Sunday will be the third Premier League match in an eight-day span for Manchester United when they host Aston Villa at the 'Theatre of Dreams'. Only five matches remain for the champions as they seek to add on to their record 19 league titles. During the reverse fixture at Villa Park in December, United emerged victorious by a 0-1 scoreline in what was a fairly dreadful affair. Phil Jones scored the lone goal that day in the 20th minute and after that, we were forced to witness the horror of Alex McLeish football. We only had to endure 90+ minutes of that rigmarole -- poor Villa fans, they've had to stomach an entire season of that.
Form Guide: Prior to the midweek 1-0 defeat by Wigan Athletic, United had gone 12 matches unbeaten in league. Sir Alex Ferguson's side enters the tie top of the table with 79 points through 33 contests. This has them 5 points clear of title-contending rival Manchester City. However, the 'noisy neighbours' will have the opportunity to pull within two points of the leaders when they take on Norwich City on Saturday at Carrow Road.
Team News: The injury situation remains the same as it was prior to the Wigan tie. Michael Owen, Anderson, and Anders Lindegaard are all unavailable but each is possible to return in the upcoming weeks. Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher remain out due to a season-ending injury and illness, respectively. (Manchester United Team News Report)
Form Guide: The Villans enter the weekend 15th in the table and 6 points clear of the drop zone. Along with Bolton Wanderers, a potential relegation rival, McLeish's side has a game in hand on the rest of the league. They have gone the past four matches without victory and their past two were draws against Liverpool FC and Stoke City. It appears highly unlikely that Villa would be relegated but a few more points may still be needed for Premier League survival.
Team News: There are a plethora of injuries or illnesses limiting the Villa squad. Darren Bent, Richard Dunne, Fabian Delph, and Ciaran Clark are all unavailable due to injury. The availability of Chris Herd, Marc Albrighton, and Stephen Warnock is questionable as well. Stiliyan Petrov is sadly out due to his bout with Acute Leukaemia.
United: No.1 David de Gea is expected between the posts at Old Trafford as is first-choice center-back pairing Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand. Patrice Evra will be at left-back while Rafael is likely to be selected over Jones and Chris Smalling at right-back. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes are the anticipated central-midfield pairing and any two of Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Nani, or Park Ji-sung could flank them. Up front, Wayne Rooney is expected and he'll be partnered by either Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito).
Villa: Villa have played their past three matches in a 4-4-2 shape but it's possible that manager McLeish opts for more structure by withdrawing a striker and adding another player in the center of the park -- just as he did during the reverse fixture. Shay Given is a near certainty to start in goal as is James Collins at center-back. The latter will be partnered by either Nathan Baker or Carlos Cuellar. Alan Hutton is probable at right-back while either Warnock or Eric Lichaj will feature at left-back. In central-midfield, Herd and Stephen Ireland are expected but Barry Bannan is possible as well. Bannan could also feature on either flank as could Albrighton, Charles N'Zogbia, Gabriel Agbonlahor, or even Emile Heskey. Up front, Agbonlahor, Heskey, and Andreas Weimann are possibilities.
Sometimes this section of the preview is really fun to write because the opposing manager is someone tactically interesting like Marcelo Bielsa or Paul Lambert. Other times, that tactician is McLeish and then I think to myself that I'd rather use the pen that is next to me so that I can stab myself in the eye rather continue writing at this point.
I'm struggling to conjure up any meaningful tactical keys for this match. I hate you Alex McLeish (*)
(*) Once again, poor Villa fans. The club courted Roberto Martinez last summer and then they ultimately ended up with McLeish. This must feel like courting Kate Upton and then ending up with a woman that looks like Carlos Tevez instead.
* Control possession, create quality chances, and be clinical with those chances: You probably just read that and thought to yourself, "no s*** Gene!" Here's the thing though -- we're almost certain to dominate the ball (**) as United are very much a possession-based side at the moment and Villa are far from it (44% average possession | 17th in the league). We'll probably create chances too due to sheer amount of time that we'll have on the ball -- but can we create quality chances? Even if quality chances are created, can we put them away?
(**) This is assuming that Scholesy starts and that Ryan Giggs doesn't have the opportunity to play 'hot potato' with the football.
Expect the back four and the double-pivot of Carrick and Scholes to patiently ping the ball around looking for the right opportunity in attack to probe. From here, Rooney will be the creator-in-chief between the lines while the wingers will be tasked with creating chances from the flanks. Both Welbeck and Chicharito haven't been putting away their chances as of late so whoever starts, that could be the simple key between a nervy finish or a comfortable win. It's a process but all of this needs to be done if we are improve upon our lackluster display at Villa Park. Quality chances and clinical finishing -- these are obvious keys but they are hugely important for this United side at the moment.
* Contain Gabriel Agbonlahor: The Villa attacker is second on his squad with 5 goals and he leads them in assists with 5. His blistering pace is a concern as it helps him to beat defenders at times (1.1 successful dribbles per game) as well as draw fouls (1.4 fouls won). He could be up front as a striker or he could be deployed on the left side of attack. This will likely have him up against Rafael and Evans at most times so these match-ups will be key ones for United's defense. Fouling him may not be the worst option for United as Villa have only scored 3 goals from set-pieces this season -- every other side in the league has at least scored 7 times from these situations.
I wonder if McLeish is allergic to writing "Charles N'Zogbia' on the team sheet because the Frenchman is another tricky attacking option that seemingly hasn't been used enough. Perhaps he's in poor form, and if so, maybe that's because of McLeish. I wouldn't know -- I used to watch Villa somewhat frequently when they were kind of fun but I don't anymore because they are no longer fun. I like to have fun. There is no way McLeish likes fun. I like pizza because it's delicious. I bet he likes broccoli because it's not delicious.
* Villa's direct approach (McLeish!): When rereading our tactical review from the reverse fixture, I was reminded of Villa's direct approach when part of the headline included 'hoof it to Heskey'. When the centre-forward came on, he was actually tasked to the left side of attack and Villa continually bypassed their midfield by hoofing the ball to their target-man. From here, the likes of Bent, Agbonlahor, Bannan, and Albrighton simply tried to get on the end of knock-downs. United will have to be prepared for this possible approach and it's one that could occur at any point in the match. The back four and Carrick will have to be strong in aerial duels while also being wary of where the knock-downs go.
KO: 4:00pm BST, 11:00am EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: Sky Sports (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.A.)
Referee: Mark Halsey
SB Nation Aston Villa: 7500 To Holte
Odds: Manchester United 2/9, Draw 5/1, Aston Villa 11/1
TBB Prediction: Manchester United 2-0 Aston Villa