We Could Win at Old Trafford... thinks Kyle Walker
The football world may be salivating at the very prospect of Eden Hazard's first trip to the Emirates as Chelsea take on Arsenal on Saturday. However, the real key Premier League fixture, and for a couple of reasons, this weekend will be Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur.
Tottenham's travails to Old Trafford are well known.
The Lilywhites have literally tried everything.
New managers and new players have come and gone. The club has been bought and sold as each new regime tries to improve upon the last. Tactics have been tried, tested and discarded as quickly as the players and managers who used them.
The Berlin Wall has come down, communism in the old Eastern Bloc has collapsed, almost every single person in the developed world now has access to the Internet and Andre Villas-Boas has grown from a 12-year-old boy with a passing interest in football to become one of the best young managers in the world.
And while all of that was going on the Red Devils were still beating Spurs at Old Trafford without much hassle.
But that might change this weekend.
From a shaky start where Tottenham went without a win for their first three games, Andre Villas-Boas has now seen his team go unbeaten in their last six matches.
Who will Win?
His revolution and tactical shake-up is slowly taking place and the green shoots of a team capable of challenging for the top four and beyond are now evolving before our very eyes.
In just four short months the Portuguese manager has completely changed Spurs from a tactical standpoint and the days of Harry Redknapp's team only attacking down the wings are long gone.
Despite losing Luka Modric, one of the games great playmakers, to Real Madrid in the summer, Spurs are now, realistically, far stronger through central midfield than ever before.
The main reason for this is the power, pace and penetration that, new-signing, Moussa Dembele provides.
His addition combined with his new teammates, his ex-Fulham midfield partner, Clint Dempsey, Gylfi Sigurdsson, France captain Hugo Lloris and ex-Ajax captain Jan Vertongen, makes Spurs a much stronger prospect than last season.
In short, Spurs have invested very wisely during the summer and now have a better team than last year and tactically they are a far different animal than any of their teams who have traveled to the Red Devils in the previous 30 years.
Spurs now boast Premier League quality in every single position on the park and have, without doubt, one of the strongest squads in the league.
And they now possess players like Gareth Bale, Dembele and Kyle Walker that other clubs look on with covetous eyes.
For Villas-Boas, his second trip to Old Trafford as a Premier League manager, his first an unlucky 3-1 defeat while at Chelsea, could represent a watershed moment in both his managerial career at Spurs and in general.
It is no secret that some sections of the Spurs faithful are finding it hard to take to the Portuguese, so a good result and good performance at Old Trafford would go a long way into him worming his way into their trophy starved hearts.
However, a good result for Spurs could have far-reaching consequences that may not be seen for some years.
The obvious place to start is with Tottenham's fans. Seventeen different managers, in one guise or another, have managed Spurs since their last victory at Old Trafford so a win or good result will instantly ingratiate him to them.
For the players it would also see a huge boost in morale and make the entire change process he is trying to implement far easier and far quicker to accept.
The unseen effect, though, is how it affects his future as Spurs’ manager.
A good result at Old Trafford and Andre Villas-Boas immediately regains the credibility he lost when he was sacked by Chelsea and in doing that, he immediately becomes a potential heir to Sir Alex Ferguson.
Earlier this season, United stumbled to a 3-2 win over Fulham at Old Trafford.
This was a Fulham side without contract-rebel Clint Dempsey, but with a Moussa Dembele who completely dominated midfield.
The Cottagers attacked United throughout and if not for a Man of the Match performance by David de Gea, in goal for the Red Devils, they would have walked away with a draw at least.
Villas-Boas, like Fulham's manager Martin Jol, seems to understand, unlike his predecessor, that the best form of defence against United is to go on the attack.
He used a similar tactic when Chelsea visited Old Trafford last year and how the Blues did not finish that game 3-1 winners instead of losers is anyone’s guess, but it’s fair to say that poor finishing definitely played its part.
Speaking before what could be a season defining game, Villas-Boas said, "we obviously know that it is extremely difficult there, but that doesn't mean that you might not be given a chance [to score] when you play that (attacking) way.
"In the end it's about taking your opportunities.
"Had Chelsea scored then maybe the result would have been different, so to try to get a result against United will be excellent for us.
"It would make us very proud to go there and get a win," he said before adding, "We can't run away from our responsibilities. The statistics are there [for all to see and] we hope to break them one day and hopefully it will be on Saturday."
The United game will be a key fixture not only for Villas-Boas but for the players in whom Spurs showed faith by signing in the summer. They—Dembele, Dempsey and Sigurdsson—will be keen to repay some of that faith by putting in a good performance and showing the club and fans what they are made of and what they are capable of.
However, if there is one team who revels in this kind of challenge to its authority, it is Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United.
Ferguson will know, only too well, that Spurs will be coming to Old Trafford with a renewed vigour in their step from their current good run and from their new manager.
This will be a battle he has fought and won countless times in his 26-year career as Manchester United boss.
He will, however, go into battle this time without his captain, and best defender, Nemanja Vidic as the ex-Serbian international will miss the next eight weeks after knee surgery following an injury he picked up earlier in the season.
This absence to a key player further complicates defensive matters for Ferguson. Both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are currently also injured, so the only central defenders the Scot has available for Tottenham's visit are Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans who are both recovering from recent knocks.
Both players struggle to contain small, mobile players like Jermain Defoe and with the Spurs man having scored four goals in five games he will be extra confident of finding the net this weekend.
The full-backs, Rafael on the right and Evra on the left, will be paired against Tottenham's wide-men, Bale and Lennon respectively, and it is here that Tottenham could inflict most damage upon the Red Devils.
It is true that Rafael has improved greatly upon last season’s hap-hazard performances at right-full. But, the Brazilian youngster is still extremely prone to poor positional play and often attacks at the most inopportune of moments, the same cannot be said of Evra, and it will be interesting to see how he copes with Bale's marauding runs from deep.
Central midfield has also been a huge problem area for United over the last number of seasons and at times during this campaign a veritable Mack Truck could have been driven through the heart of the United team without too much trouble.
With Spurs now arguably possessing their strongest midfield in decades United will have their work cut out for them.
Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are finished as far as the modern game and 90 minutes of pure action is concerned. But, they are still the best central midfielders, particularly Scholes, which Ferguson has at his disposal.
This week saw the much welcomed re-introduction of Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverly to the United fold and if these two players can be brought back to Premier League speed quickly many of the Red Devils' midfield problems will go away.
The superb Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa seems destined to start, as do Antonio Valencia and Michael Carrick. Meaning the biggest headache for Ferguson will be how to accommodate Luis Nani, Fletcher, Cleverly, Scholes, Giggs and the returning talisman that is Wayne Rooney.
It would seem that none from Rooney, Fletcher or Cleverly are quite ready for 90 minutes of Premier League action just yet, but one suspects that Ferguson may well start with one of them, possibly Rooney in an advanced role, and make a change late on.
Should Rooney play, his phenomenal versatility should almost guarantee him a free role alongside Kagawa and just behind Robin van Persie in attack.
This is the area of the pitch where United are strongest and where Spurs are weakest so going to Old Trafford, as they have done in recent years, and trying to hold out for a draw or to nick a win would be tantamount to football suicide.
Taking this tactical battle into account you can see exactly why Andre Villas-Boas will set his team up to attack.
Put all of these elements together and you have the basic ingredients for the first real classic of the Premier League season.
Will Andre Villas-Boas and Spurs see the stars align in such a perfect order for the first time in 23 years? Will United romp away with their seventh win in seven games?
All will be revealed on Saturday, but one thing is for sure; Manchester United vs. Spurs is the key Premier League fixture this weekend.