Manchester United travel to one of England’s most famous grounds this afternoon to take on Aston Villa.
After falling four times at the semi-final stage, Ole Gunnar Solskjær reached his first final as manager on Thursday, but now will prepare his troops for a relentless run of three Premier League games in five days, starting with Dean Smith & co.
Looking to cement their place in second spot as the final few domestic fixtures ensue, the Red Devils are hoping to make it at least 25 away league games unbeaten.
Kick-off: 14:05 [BST]
Venue: Villa Park
Referee: Chris KavanaghEmbed from Getty Images
Without talisman Jack Grealish since mid-February, things have been rough for the Birmingham-based outfit in 2021, following a stunning start to the season.
Villa’s successful survival last time out was built on to great effect last summer and autumn, then being on track for a European place by the end of the term.
Sadly for the Villains and their fans, their form dropped off in spring but they’re far from dropping out of the league like last year.
Being six points above Midlands rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers and one behind Arsenal with a game in hand on both teams, the potential for a top half finish is still well and truly there, especially given that expected points suggests they should be sitting in ninth.
Knowing three points today could catapult them into that position in reality, let’s take a look at Villa.
Previous result: Everton 1-2 Aston Villa (Ollie Watkins, Anwar El-Ghazi)
Top goalscorer: Watkins (15)
Most assists: Grealish (12)
One to watch: El-Ghazi
Reverse fixture: Manchester United 2-1 Aston Villa (Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes) (Bertrand Traoré)Embed from Getty Images
Favouring a 4-2-3-1, Smith’s side have been difficult to penetrate this campaign, keeping 14 top-flight clean sheets in the process
Ranking 11th for average possession, the Villains’ tendencies to use vertical wide passes to counter attack quickly and eagerness to cross to find Watkins have become more prominent in Grealish’s absence, whose dribbling offers variation in their attacks and allows them to hold the ball in the final third.
At the back, Argentine stopped Emiliano Martínez boasts the second-best save percentage in the top flight with 77%, having faced more than double the amount of shots on target than first-placed Ederson, who has a rate of 77.5% as Manchester City’s no. 1.
Interestingly, now back-up goalkeeper Tom Heaton has been the subject of reports linking him with a return to Old Trafford this summer, along with fellow Carrington academy graduate Sam Johnstone, who has impressed with West Bromwich Albion this term.
Full-backs Matty Cash and Matt Targett are adventurous, and the pair have played a large part towards the fact that Villa have attempted the second-most amount of crosses in the division this season.
Cash, who arrived from Nottingham Forest last summer in the fruitful transfer window, additionally ranks top of the team’s interception charts with an average of 2.3 every match, followed by Targett’s 1.5.
Steady centre-back duo Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings have also been vital for the claret and blue outfit, as the Villains win the third-most aerial duels per-90 Premier League minutes (20).
The defensive-minded Douglas Luiz is third on interception list, while double pivot partner John McGinn created two chances through two key passes last weekend in a prosperous trip to Merseyside.Embed from Getty Images
Predominantly attacking down the left flank (44% of the time), Dutchman El-Ghazi is a threat, and is the side’s second-highest scorer in 2020/21 with nine strikes, facing little competition for his place in the starting XI thanks to Trezeguet’s long-term injury.
Ross Barkley has taken up Grealish’s mantle reasonably well behind Watkins in recent weeks, completing the most passes and dribbles in the affair at his former home, Goodison Park, and averages a very decent 2.32 key passes per-90.
Bertrand Traoré can blow hot or cold but his goal in the reverse fixture should be a warning sign and he arrived from Ligue 1 last year, the same league as January signing Morgan Sanson, who is a doubt.
Main marksman Watkins has been a big reason as to why Villa have been more impressive this campaign than on their largely toothless return in 19/20.
He has commendably managed the most minutes in the squad, helping the Villains already beat their tally of 41 goals last term five games ago, with as many left to play.
The Exeter City academy graduate’s goals have been invaluable but he is ninth for most big chances missed in the top flight (13), although that can be attributed to at least being the right place a lot of the time – plus, no other player has hit the woodwork on more occasions than him this season (7).
It’s not surprise, then, that the still-blossoming forward is underperforming in terms of xG, but that might not stop him going to the European Championships with England next month.
Despite being 5’ 11”, Watkins wins 3.9 aerial duels each outing, and his movement causes the best of defenders trouble, as displayed by his torment of Virgil van Dijk during their 7-2 hammering of Liverpool back in October, as he bagged a hat-trick.
It’s impossible to ignore Grealish’s impact further, as the skipper sits joint-third in Premier League for big chances created with 13, five behind leader Fernandes.
The Three Lions international is also third in the rankings for total key passes (75), this time 14 behind the leader – again a certain Portuguese magnifico.
Grealish is also crucial to their average of winning 14.4 fouls from the opposition per-game, more than any other side in the league, as the homegrown captain wins an average of 4.5 alone.
The local lad’s intricacy has gone a long way to making his team the fifth-highest shot takers per-90 in the top flight (13.7 with 5.1 of those efforts on target), and his creativity has been a miss in the 11 matches for which Grealish has been an absentee.
Unless Smith is bluffing, expect that to be 12 by tonight.
Another youth product, Keinan Davis, took the limelight in their last home encounter with West Brom, scoring a late equaliser to grab a point, and the towering striker has come off the bench to feature in his side’s last three games.
The youngster almost scored a last-gasp equaliser in the Theatre of Dreams clash on New Year’s Day, too, but Eric Bailly heroically denied him.
Before a crunch rearranged clash with Everton again next week, they’ll be hoping to record their first victory over United at Villa Park since a League Cup win in October 1999 – a few months on from the treble win and Ryan Giggs’ famous goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final at the stadium.
Absentees (estimated return)
- Jack Grealish – shin (back in training)
- Morgan Sanson – knee (late assessment)
- Trezeguet – knee (next season)
(4-2-3-1) Martínez; Cash, Konsa, Mings, Targett; Luiz, McGinn; Traoré, Barkley, El-Ghazi; Watkins
Quote from the boss
“Manchester United have got a lot of games to play, they’ve got a cup final to look forward to now, and they’ll be looking to cement their second-placed spot. They’ve done very well this season and we know we are coming up against a very
good team.” – Dean Smith
Next match: Everton [H] Thursday, May 13Embed from Getty Images
THE RED DEVILS
Despite being beaten on the night, United are through to the Europa League final and will face Villarreal in Gdańsk, Poland on Wednesday, May 26 (that sounds like a familiar date).
Now with the close of the PL season to concentrate on until then, the hectic schedule of Sunday-Tuesday-Thursday is upon us.
Leicester City and Liverpool will both visit Old Trafford in midweek, so this afternoon harbours an opportunity to at least take some momentum into the tough period, where heavy rotation is inevitable.
Having lost just once in their 42 meetings since the ‘99 defeat, United love playing the Villains and even more so in their own back yard.
The Red Devils are unbeaten in their last 21 away league games against Villa since a 3-1 loss on the opening day of the 1995/96 campaign (you know, the time when Match of the Day’s Alan Hansen declared: “You’ll never win anything with kids” post-match), and it’s the longest unbeaten away run that a side has had against another in English top-flight history.
Although, a fringe MUFC side did lose 1-0 in a friendly at the stadium last summer, so it’s no guarantee for points.Embed from Getty Images
Dean Henderson is set to return in goal, while full-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw should also be in the starting XI, as Alex Telles and Brandon Williams looked rusty in Rome.
Harry Maguire has played every minute of Premier League action since joining the club, and even though Solskjær has stated that tally will end this week, he should partner Victor Lindelöf today.
The central midfield of partnership of Scott McTominay and Fred was missed in midweek, but they should be paired together here to assert some dominance on the game and battle with Luiz and McGinn.Embed from Getty Images
Marcus Rashford made a cameo in Italy, meaning he’ll likely be fresh enough to line up alongside Fernandes and one of Mason Greenwood and Paul Pogba (the latter three having scored in the corresponding fixture last season in a 0-3 romp), with the in-form Edinson Cavani spearheading the offensive unit.
It’s unknown whether Daniel James and his electric pace will be in Birmingham, while Phil Jones and Anthony Martial still are at respective recovery stages from knee injuries.
Juan Mata got his first goal for the club against the men from the Midlands at the Theatre of Dreams in 2014, and is an alternative attacking option like Amad Diallo.
Finally (no pun intended), the iconic venue is reportedly in line to host the Champions League final later this month if COVID-19 issues persist in Turkey, and three points inside of it today would all but seal the Red Devils’ place in the competition in 21/22.
Absentees (estimated return)
- Daniel James – knock (unknown)
- Phil Jones – knee (rehabilitation)
- Anthony Martial – knee (back in training)
(4-2-3-1) Henderson; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelöf, Maguire, Shaw; McTominay, Fred; Rashford, Fernandes, Pogba; Cavani
Quote from the boss
“I think they’re a very good team, you saw them last week beat Everton. They’ve had a very good season, they had a little spell with some worse results but we played them in a pre-season friendly before this season, and lost. We won a hard-fought game 2-1 at Old Trafford, we know it’s going to be tough but we’re looking forward to it.” – Ole Gunnar Solskjær
Next match: Leicester City [H] Tuesday, May 11Embed from Getty Images
Head-to-head (189 meetings)
- Aston Villa – 49 (26%)
- Draw – 40 (21%)
- Manchester United – 100 (53%)
- Ollie Watkins vs Harry Maguire
- Anwar El-Ghazi vs Luke Shaw
- Matty Cash vs Paul Pogba
Let us know your thoughts ahead of the game and enjoy the match!