Why Aston Villa Have Reason to Be Hopeful Ahead of Manchester United Clash

Sam TigheWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterApril 21, 2013

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 12:  Gabriel Agbonlahor of Aston Villa celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Aston Villa at Old Trafford on December 12, 2009 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

For Aston Villa and their fans, the sight of Manchester United and, in particular, Old Trafford brings shivers to the spine.

It's incredibly rare for the boys in claret and blue to secure victory against the champions elect, and Paul Lambert's side walk into this knowing it's a free pass.

Last season, Villa lost this fixture 4-0, with Ciaran Clark setting the tone early by giving away a very contentious penalty inside the first 10 minutes, effectively killing the game.

Then-manager Alex McLeish had rocked up with a 4-5-1 defensive formation and, even at 1-0 early on, didn't budge on his mantra. That was the most disappointing part—the approach, not the result.

The Villans have won once at Old Trafford in the last 29 years, with Gabby Agbonlahor's headed goal the difference in the 2009-10 season.

So, what makes this occasion so different? Why should Villa think they can bring between one and three incredibly valuable points home?

One critical difference between this year and last—it's a free pass once more, but there's a manager in place to take advantage of it. Rather than sit back and take a lashing, Villa will push for goals in an attempt to win the game.

Sir Alex Ferguson remains wary of this and, in his pre-match conference, praised his fellow Scot's bold approach:

We expect a scrap.

Villa showed against Stoke that they have a bit of life about them and they should have won their game again last week.

When I saw the structure of those teams, they looked really positive selections.

A lot of teams in that situation may pick a team to get something out of the game. Paul Lambert picked a team to win. There is a distinction.

The last thing expected is for Lambert to match Manchester United's flat 4-4-2 and play with two out-and-out strikers, but he might try a diamond midfield (as seen in the latter stages of the Fulham game) or play a proper 4-3-3.

United are strolling toward the title at a very, very slow pace. The players, by and large, stopped trying too hard about a month ago, and only a Manchester City loss at White Hart Lane on Sunday could put the spring back in their step.

Villa, on the other hand, are on the up. The fact that they remain disappointed they didn't comfortably beat a very capable Fulham side last weekend is a sign of how far they've come.

Christian Benteke will be buoyed by his nomination for the PFA Young Player of the Year award, and, with any luck, Charles N'Zogbia will continue to sparkle.

An away win at Old Trafford is never likely—for any team—but so long as City don't beat Spurs, this is as good a time as any to catch the league leaders.

And Villa are in great form.