Aston Villa vs. Manchester United: Key Battles to Watch

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistNovember 8, 2012

Aston Villa vs. Manchester United: Key Battles to Watch

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    After taking their place at the top of the Premier League table last weekend, Manchester United will look to maintain bragging rights this weekend following a trip to Villa Park.

    In their last four trips to Aston Villa, the Red Devils have drawn three and scraped by last season’s encounter in Birmingham through a 1-0 win, courtesy of a Phil Jones strike.

    This time around, Paul Lambert’s side are also coming into the fixture off the back of a win and will be in a buoyant mood having snatched victory from the Stadium of Light.

    Like any encounter amongst England’s elite, the outcome of the clash will depend on several key matchups after sorting the wheat from the chaff and the weak from the strong.

Ron Vlaar vs. Robin van Persie

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    A Dutch clash for the ages? Not quite. However, the prospective tug of war that is set to ensue between the two sides’ Holland representatives doesn’t make for a promising battle.

    As many will already know, Robin van Persie has been in fine form for United since moving to Old Trafford over the summer, scoring 11 goals and making four assists in just 11 starts across all competitions.

    That being said, Vlaar is another of the Oranje to have transferred clubs over the summer and the centre-back would appear to be settling in just as well in the claret and blue of Villa.

    After starting on the substitutes bench during the midweek win over Braga, RVP won’t be too fatigued for this weekend and should be fit to return to the starting lineup against Paul Lambert’s men.

    Recent weeks have seen the Manchester United forward occupy the attacking line on his own, backed up by the likes of Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, with Wayne Rooney filling in just behind.

    Vlaar and RVP will be slightly familiar with the playing style that each other adopt having trained in the national ranks together, but only one can come away with bragging rights this weekend.

Enda Stevens vs. Antonio Valencia

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    In a severely unfortunate series of events for Paul Lambert, a wound on the knee of Joe Bennett reopened in the 11th minute of the win over Sunderland, meaning that Eric Lichaj had to come on.

    However, the American defender suffered an injury himself and had to be taken off in place of Enda Stevens, who would look likely to take up the starting spot against Manchester United.

    Unfortunately for the Irishman—who made his league debut for Villa just last weekend—Manchester United’s right flank has been an area of particular effectiveness in recent weeks, making for a difficult day for Stevens.

    Massively inexperienced in the English top flight, the prospect of standing up to the likes of Rafael, Antonio Valencia, Nani or any combination of the three will be a daunting one for the 22-year-old.

    Between those three, the aforementioned trio has eight assists in the Premier League this season, and it will be the in-form Ecuadorian, Valencia, who is most likely to target this weakened area of the Villa defence.

Christian Benteke vs. Chris Smalling

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    Since arriving in England over the summer, Christian Benteke has made a decent impression in front of the Villa Park faithful, giving Lambert a viable alternative to Darren Bent up front.

    The Belgian international has netted four goals in seven starts for his new side, and although the Birmingham outfit have seen their side struggle in attack at times, Benteke has been a relatively bright spark for this weekend’s hosts.

    With Nemanja Vidic suffering with injury a lot this campaign, wins in aerial duels have been harder for the Red Devils to come by after losing the presence of one of their biggest defensive stalwarts.

    However, United’s loss is Villa’s gain as Benteke has shown his heading ability to be one massive strength in his play, whether it be in build-up or finishing.

    The youngster likes to challenge opposition defenders in the air, heading on for teammates to run onto, and Chris Smalling looks to be the one likely to challenge Villa’s star man after coming back into United’s squad during midweek.

    The English defender looks set to make his first league appearance of the season after Jonny Evans picked up a knock in the win over Braga, and taking care of Benteke will keep his hands full at times.

    This season, United have shown their vulnerability to concede goals in a way that hasn’t been seen for some time—a factor that will encourage the Villa attackers to go forward without fear.

Ashley Westwood vs. Michael Carrick

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    A man who actually sees himself in the mould of the Manchester United midfielder, Ashley Westwood will get to go up against one of his idols this weekend when he faces off against Michael Carrick.

    Upon signing for the Villans, the youngster told

    I see myself as a Michael Carrick-type of player, someone who stays out of the limelight and keeps it simple, retaining the ball and laying it off to team-mates and from the conversations I've had with the new manager I think that will fit in perfectly here.

    Carrick, now 31 years old, is one of the most senior figures in the United squad and has been an ever-present figure for his side in this first quarter of the campaign.

    As the 22-year-old says above, both player’s style sees them focused mainly on ball retention and ensuring that their side have possession in order for more creative players to do the real damage.

    Regardless of their relatively low amount of impact play, both midfielders will be instrumental to their team’s efforts and it will be intriguing to see which end of the age spectrum wins out at Villa Park. 

    Although there's no guarantee Westwood will even start, the playmaker did well in his first Premier League start last weekend and could be pushed forward once again.

Gabriel Agbonlahor vs. Rafael

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    Having scored the winner against Sunderland, it’s more than likely that Gabriel Agbonlahor will get the nod to start against Manchester United this weekend, forming one aspect of the front three that Villa have chosen to use at times under Paul Lambert.

    In the 2008-09 season, the Englishman managed to net the sole goal in a 1-0 victory for Villa at Old Trafford, ending a winless streak of more than 25 years for the Villans.

    In 12 Premier League matches against United, Agbonlahor has netted on four separate occasions and may feel confident of adding a fifth or perhaps even more against a back line currently suffering with numerous injuries.

    Part of that defence on a consistent basis has been Rafael who, while offering a bounty of assistance in attack, has been suspect in when in his own third for periods.

    The Brazilian youngster is the most likely candidate to be tasked with keeping Agbonlahor’s input to a minimum this weekend and will have to fulfill more than just his offensive responsibilities if his side is to triumph.

    With both possessing vast amounts of pace, the battle down Villa’s left wing promises to be an open affair between two players with a lot of flair and making for a very promising head-to-head matchup.