MATCH PREVIEW - MAN UTD VS VILLA
By Tom Powell
Thursday 27 Mar 2008 19:44:09
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Last Saturday the dark clouds gathering over Villa Park erupted into downpours as Villa suffered an embarrassing home loss against struggling Sunderland. What better way to try and regain some confidence than visiting the home of the champions, as Martin O’Neill takes his charges to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. 

In comparison Saturday’s counterparts couldn’t be more full of confidence. Easter Sunday’s comfortable 3-0 victory over rivals Liverpool leaves United five points clear at the top of the table with seven games to play, and with Chelsea not playing until Sunday they will see this as a chance to stretch that lead further. 

If it isn’t difficult enough travelling to Old Trafford it won’t help that  Villa are short on numbers as the long season appears to be taking it’s toll. Curtis Davies is already missing until next season, which means Zat Knight retains his place in the side and has stated he needs to turn in some good performances in order to make next years eleven. He told www.avfc.co.uk, “We’re all playing for our positions next season. When the manager does bring in new players. I have to aim to be ahead of them.” 

Craig Gardner is the latest player to be stricken with an injury as he faces two or three weeks on the sidelines having come back from international duty with a thigh strain. Fortunately his injury coincides with the return from a one-match ban of stand in right-back Olof Mellberg who will return to Saturday’s starting line-up. Scott Carson has been deemed fit to play this weekend despite having to pull out of the England squad with a knee injury. 

There are no fresh injuries for the Red Devils as they have an almost entirely healthy squad to select from. Gary Neville’s return to the first team may still be a few weeks away as he strives to regain full fitness after over a year on the sidelines. Neville told www.manutd.com, “I’m probably a little bit away from first-team sharpness but the only way I’ll get that is by continuing to train with the first team.”

Louis Saha is also rated doubtful as he looks to overcome a hamstring injury that has hampered his season. The biggest decisions facing Sir Alex will be regarding which of his star names to leave out. Nani’s goalscoring cameo against Liverpool may earn him a place in the first eleven, whislt Carlos Tevez will also be looking for a starting birth. Owen Hargreaves’ performance for England against France will have done him no harm but he will be fighting with Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Anderson for a place in centre midfield on Saturday.
 

In the build up to this game, Martin O’Neill has been stressing about Villa’s need to start keeping clean sheets, something they haven’t done since the 4-0 win at Blackburn in November, seventeen matches ago. O’Neill told www.teamtalk.com, “I think we should be able to defend better. We have scored goals, which sometimes overlooks the fact we haven't kept clean sheets. I didn't need to be told we hadn't kept a clean sheet for a long time. I was well aware of it and it is important.” 

This season’s corresponding fixture was disastrous for Villa. Having taken an early lead courtesy of Gabriel Agbonlahor, Villa ended the game with nine men and on the receiving end of a 4-1 hammering. 

As far as predictions for this match go I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be optimistic about Villa’s chances, but there’s always hope of a Villa backlash somewhere along the line. William Hill have put odds of 8/1 on Villa coming away from Old Trafford with all three points, it may be more likely that 8-1 could be the score line on Saturday afternoon. In reality, that’s very doubtful…Villa won’t score eight, 2-1 is more realistic, and so I’ll go for that instead.

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