After going ahead of title rivals and neighbors Manchester City by eight points earlier in the month, the Premier League crown seemed to be an inevitability for Sir Alex Ferguson and his men.
But after the surprising 1-0 loss at the hands of the Latics midweek, coupled with City’s 4-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, the defending champions still have work to do if they are to wrap up a 20th league title.
Knowing that there is a renewed sense of hope on the blue half of Manchester, the Red Devils’ manager will not let his team get away with anything less than a dominant display this weekend, which signals bad news for Aston Villa.
For their part, Villa come into the match with plenty to play for. The club is currently sitting 15th in the league table, only six points out of the drop zone. With the season nearing its end, Villa fans will be less than comfortable if their team drops more points this weekend.
Where Will the Goals Come From?
Prior to the loss at DW Stadium, goalkeeper David de Gea and United had gone five consecutive matches without conceding a goal. Their opponents, meanwhile, have had a terrible time finding the net this season, as only three teams in the Premier League have scored fewer goals than Aston Villa. Away from Villa Park, the numbers are even more depressing. Alex McLeish’s men have been kept off the board in over a third of their away matches this year.
Once again without injured striker Darren Bent—who will miss the entire season as he recovers from ligament damage suffered to his ankle in late February—it is hard to see where Aston Villa will find the goals, especially at Old Trafford.
Ferguson's side have only lost twice at home this season. In addition, they have not dropped any points there since New Year's Eve, conceding just one goal during that stretch.
Villa have won just one of their last 10 EPL matches—a 1-0 home win against Fulham March 10.
Despite some impressive performances away from home throughout the campaign, Villa have still only managed to record three victories on their travels so far this year, and a visit to one of the most daunting grounds in England is probably not going to help turn that around.
Throw in the fact that Aston Villa has won only once in 19 Premier League visits to the Theatre of Dreams, and you would be lucky to find someone outside of the Villa dressing room who thinks they can come away with a positive result this weekend.
But this is football and surprises do happen—Wigan proved that just days ago—so we can’t count out Gabriel Agbonlahor and company just yet.
Villa’s Stephen Warnock is questionable for the contest after suffering an ankle injury that forced him to be substituted during the club’s 1-1 draw with Stoke City midweek.
For all of the trouble Aston Villa has had defensively this season, the English left-back has been one of the most consistent performers for McLeish and his absence could be a major blow for the side.
As he did against Stoke, American youngster Eric Lichaj will most likely slot in at left-back, which means he will be forced to deal with in-form United winger Antonio Valencia.
The 26-year-old Ecuadorian will fancy his chances of wreaking havoc out on the right wing this Sunday. Valencia has assisted on 12 goals this season for United, the most of any player at the club. He has also chipped in with four goals of his own, including his blistering winner against Blackburn Rovers at the start of the month.
While Lichaj has performed admirably this season, his inexperience—along with that of center-back Nathan Baker— may be the key to United breaking down the Villa defense.
With Valencia causing problems out wide and Wayne Rooney in excellent form at the moment, it may be a long day for the defenders in claret and blue. The star striker has scored in four consecutive home matches, and you wouldn’t bet against that run coming to an end this weekend.
While it would be great to make a bold prediction and have Aston Villa prove me right, the chances of that happening seem slim.
With Manchester City travelling to Norwich for a match with the Canaries on Saturday, United may see its lead cut to just two points before they step foot on the pitch on Sunday.
That should give them plenty of motivation to go out and restore their lead, especially considering that the Manchester derby is just around the corner.
If City do slip up, United will have all the more reason to make a statement and secure the title for good.
Either way, it seems like Aston Villa will be in for a long day. Look for Manchester United to rebound in dominant fashion, coming away with a commanding 3-0 victory.