A thrilling contest looms in the shadows as Manchester United make the trip to the Midlands to take on Aston Villa on Sunday, as Premier League football continues with it’s 24th gameweek of the season.
Aston Villa are one of the biggest surprise of the season as Unai Emery’s men have taken the league by storm and find themselves in an unlikely title race. Sitting a mere five points behind leaders Liverpool, not many Villa fans would have expected their team to be performing so well after the opening day of the season. They have been going from strength to strength under Emery, finishing 7th last season and on course now to finish inside another European spot, barring a collapse. The Lions are playing attractive, attacking football, adapting to every opponent with their own unique style and successfully negotiating with almost all teams who have lined up in front of them.
However, their run of form has been scratchy of late, with only two wins in the last five league games. They were last in action against Chelsea in the FA Cup fifth round replay, where they suffered another loss, their second in last three games in all competitions. Emery’s men were dismantled by an inspired Chelsea, as the Villains crashed out of the FA Cup on Wednesday night, losing 3-1. Aston Villa will be looking to bounce back against Manchester United, who have looked weak away from home this season.
Manchester United were at their prolific best last weekend as they put 3 goals past West Ham United at home and kept a clean sheet, taking three points quite comfortably. The Red Devils looked like a different side than the porous and unsettled team that fans have seen for the last few months. With players like Lisandro Martinez, Casemiro and Luke Shaw returning, the team looked balanced and organized. Erik ten Hag had a twinkle in his eye in the post-match conference, saying he had been insisting for months that his lads would come good once they had their key players back. United’s attack which has been lackluster and listless for the majority of the season has suddenly sprung to life, as they hit 3 or more goals for the third consecutive game. West Ham’s staunch defense was breached a number of times by the Red Devils and they looked seamless and smooth in all areas of the pitch.
They go up against an Aston Villa team who have been riddled with inconsistency and the visitors will look to keep their momentum going and get just their second away win against a team in the top half of the table.
WHEN AND WHERE
Date: Sunday, 11th February 2024.
Venue: Villa Park, Birmingham, UK.
Time: 4.30 pm GMT
Referee: Rob Jones.
Assistants: Ian Hussin, Richard West.
Fourth official: Tony Harrington.
VAR: David Coote.
Assistant VAR: Tim Wood.
Aston Villa are without a few key players as Emiliano Buendia, Tyrone Mings, Lucas Digne and Jhon Duran all facing long spells on the sidelines. Ezri Konsa injured his knee last weekend and will be out for a few weeks as confirmed by Unai Emery. Pau Torres was named on the bench as an unused substitute in their midweek FA Cup tie against Chelsea, as he seems to have recovered fully from his ankle injury. It remains to see if Emery trusts the center-back from the off against a charged up United on Sunday or if the Spaniard is eased into the setup. New signing Morgan Rogers did not feature in the midweek as he was cup-tied, but should return back to the squad for Sunday and will be in contention for selection should the manager choose to freshen up his attack.
Manchester United suffered a massive blow in their win over West Ham last weekend, as influential defender Lisandro Martinez went off injured. The club later confirmed the Argentine had suffered a knee injury and is due to be on the sidelines for at least the next eight weeks. It was a huge setback for United and Martinez, who had just returned from a lengthy period on the treatment table. United look their best with the diminutive center back in the side, and the Red Devils will have to cope without him as their injury woes continue. Mason Mount, Tyrell Malacia and Anthony Martial are all set to miss out again as the former edges ever closer to a return to action. However, the return of Harry Maguire last weekend was a welcome sight for the Old Trafford faithful as he put in a strong display on his return after more than a month on the sidelines, marshalling the West Ham attack expertly. Victor Lindelof also returned from injury to make an appearance of the bench, his 250th for the club.
It is that time of the season when teams face each other for the second time, having learned lessons from mistakes they made earlier. These two sides met not that very long ago, as the Boxing Day fixture at Old Trafford proved to be a box office hit. United were 3-2 winners on the night, but it was hard work for them as they had to overcome Villa’s two goal half-time lead.
Often teams not living up to their potential have a turning point, and for United that win against the Lions could have ignited the spark they so desperately craved. The Red Devils have lost just one game since, winning four and drawing once since the Boxing Day game. Rasmus Højlund scored his first Premier League goal in that game – the winner no less – and has not looked back since, scoring three in three league appearances since. The Dane looks more and more like a player worth the big amount United paid for him and he credits the winning goal against Villa as the watershed change.
For Villa however, it could have been a turning point for the worse, as they have not been at their very best since. The Birmingham side have won just three out of seven games played since, and Unai Emery has also lost a couple key players to injuries in the period. However, its not all doom and gloom for Emery and the fans. Villa recorded their biggest away win in the Premier League since 2008 as they demolished Sheffield United 5-0 last time out in the league. They scored four goals in the first thirty minutes and did not let up the pressure on the Blades defense till the final minutes. It was an outstanding display of attacking display from Emery’s men and they will be looking to replicate the same against United, despite the demoralizing win against Chelsea in the midweek.
United have won only once against a top 10 away side, with the win coming at Molineux against Wolves, in that thrilling 4-3 win. The Red Devils have an undoubtedly poor record and Villa will hope it works in their favor. The visitors are also missing their best defender and the attacking trio of Watkins, Bailey and McGinn will look to take their chances.
It will be a close contest once again, with the teams having similar setups, although Villa play with a much more fluid style than United. The Red Devils are still finding their feet and it will be interesting to see how the game plays out.
An outstanding season for the 28-year-old forward continues as he reached double figures for both goals and assists in the league for Villa last weekend. With 11 goals and 10 assists, he is not only their most productive player, he also became the first player since Dwight Yorke in 1996 to achieve the feat for Villa. Unai Emery’s arrival has helped Watkins blossom and he has improved leaps and bounds since. His goals have propelled Villa into the top four and his linkups with Leon Bailey and John McGinn have proved to be lethal on the counter. A direct battle against United’s young striker will be one to watch on Sunday.
Ruud van Nistelrooy once famously said to Gonzalo Higuain, “Goals are like ketchup, when they do come out, they all come at once.” United’s 21-year-old striker had a rocky start to life in the Premier League, enduring a 14-game drought, before he scored the winner in the reverse fixture to open his account. Despite a difficult start, the youngster has shown great character and perseverance to keep plugging away and now the goals keep on coming as the Dane shows no signs of stopping. Højlund was starved of service from the United creators, but there have been signs that United’s young attacking trifecta including Rashford and Garnacho are finally developing an understanding between them. Supported by the ever-present creator-in-chief Bruno Fernandes, United attack looks potent and could cause all sorts of problems to the Villa defenders on Sunday.
ASTON VILLA XI: Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Diego Carlos, Pau Torres, Alex Moreno; Douglas Luiz, Boubacar Kamara; Leon Bailey, Jacob Ramsey, John McGinn; Ollie Watkins.
MANCHESTER UNITED XI: Andre Onana; Diogo Dalot, Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane, Luke Shaw; Casemiro, Kobbie Mainoo; Alejandro Garnacho, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford; Rasmus Højlund.