Having won only one of their last three league fixtures, Manchester United have experienced a drop in form that, while not perhaps threatening to lose them top spot anytime soon, is nonetheless unwelcome in Sir Alex Ferguson’s books.
This week, the Scotsman’s Red Devils return to Old Trafford following two consecutive away games, hoping to bounce back from the midweek draw against West Ham with a win over another set of claret and blues.
Paul Lambert’s side have won three of their last six fixtures and will need every one of their players to pull a performance out of the hat on Monday if they’re to record an underdog victory, the five most key of which are detailed ahead.
In his last meeting against Manchester United, Andi Weimann managed to upset the odds by hit an impressive brace past David de Gea.
This time around, the striker come winger will be hoping to have a similar impact against the Spaniard, likely to play in off the right flank as he has done for the majority of Villa’s campaign.
A forward by nature, it’s no surprise that Weimann has a sweet shot in his arsenal, but just whether or not Patrice Evra will allow him to show it this week is another matter, now that the Frenchman will be a tad more aware of his opposite man.
After a rather overcast two years, Evra has had arguably his best season to date in Manchester United colours, or at least his most assured in attack anyway.
The 31-year-old has scored four goals and made six assists in 30 Premier League starts, but may need to pay that little bit more attention in defence if he’s to deflect Weimann’s influence away from his own goal.
With once of the best back fours in the division against them, it’s likely that Weimann and Christian Benteke will form two parts of a front three against United, meaning the Austrian international’s tendency to drift more central will pose a problem for Red Devils other than Evra.
Since returning from a winter injury layoff, Shinji Kagawa has found his playing time sprinkled about quite sporadically and has played a full 90 minutes for the Red Devils just three times in the Premier League.
That being said, the Japanese international’s last few outings for Manchester United have been very encouraging ones from a Reds perspective.
However, that’s even considering that Kagawa’s latest involvement has seen him line up in a less familiar position out on the left wing, as opposed to the more central role preferred in his previous stomping grounds.
On Monday, should Ferguson field his playmaker out wide once more, he’ll surely line up against Matthew Lowton, one of Paul Lambert’s outstanding players this season, also enjoying his first campaign in the Premier League.
Lowton has proven to be more of a throwback to the traditional full-back, more focused on his defending than contribution in attack, although that doesn’t mean the Englishman’s incapable of getting forward in any sense.
23 and 24 years old, respectively, Lowton and Kagawa will clash in a battle that both managers (but certainly Lambert more so) will be hoping to witness for years to come, with both players beginning to flourish in their new surroundings.
The most senior of Manchester United defenders, Rio Ferdinand is likely to be the one gifted with the task of quelling the threat of Christian Benteke, recently nominated for PFA Young Player of the Year.
The young Belgian international’s 20 goals across all competitions have been a shining light for Aston Villa in what’s been a tough season for the club, providing a reliable striking presence when it’s been needed most.
Perhaps one of Benteke’s most evident threats is the aerial presence that his height and athletic ability gives him, an aspect of the game that Ferdinand has proven to be well-versed in during a Premier League career spanning 16 years.
It promises to be a physical game between the pair, both relying primarily on their substantial frames to get their jobs done.
While Ferdinand can certainly keep up in that forum, Benteke’s speed might prove an issue for the former Leeds United centre-back, meaning the likes of Jonny Evans and United’s full-backs might be required as cover should Ferdinand’s positioning let him down.
In this season more than any other, Wayne Rooney’s growing maturity has seen him drop deeper into a midfield position in order to allow Robin van Persie a role of freedom up front, a tactic that appears to have worked domestically for Manchester United.
Instead, should Rooney garner a starting spot, he’s likely to operate just behind RVP and will be responsible for a great deal of United’s chance creation alongside Shinji Kagawa, Antonio Valencia and Tom Cleverley.
Despite his own-goal display against Fulham last week, Fabian Delph has shown improvement in recent months, and following a period of obscurity at Villa Park, is now earning his first-team spot in the side.
The more defensively minded of the Villan midfielders, the former Leeds United starlet will likely need to drop that much deeper in order to counteract the Rooney threat, spelling out a busy day at the office for Delph.
Having come on by leaps and bounds in certain areas of his game this season, Rafael might be slightly frustrated at not seeing himself among others shortlisted for PFA Young Player of the Year.
However, the Brazilian international will have ample opportunity to show selectors what they missed out on this week when he’ll lace up opposite Gabriel Agbonlahor, although the Villa attacker is doubtful after picking up a thigh injury a fortnight ago.
Should Agbonlahor play, Rafael will once again duel against a player who matched him for speed in the reverse fixture, something that Rafael usually relies upon to see him through his job.
That being said, Agbonlahor isn’t exactly renowned for his defensive work rate, and if the Villa Park veteran does make his return against Manchester United, Rafael might hope to make light work of his attacking responsibilities.
Recent seasons have seen Agbonlahor’s position drift out wide more often, especially given the success of Christian Benteke this campaign, but that doesn’t mean the 26-year-old Birmingham native is done in his goalscoring exploits.
This season, Agbonlahor has nine goals and four assists to his name across all competitions and is likely to cut inside Rafael should the youngster give him an opening.