At the turn of the year, whilst looking at Villa’s upcoming fixtures, this game was one of many that no fan wanted to face. Aston Villa’s form was quite simply abysmal and the prospect of a looming trip to Old Trafford did nothing to quell the scaremongering calls of imminent relegation – and the head of Gerard Houllier on a spike. Spike optional.
Fast forward a few weeks and things are much rosier indeed. After the dismal showing at home against Sunderland, the club evidently had a wake up call. Wins against Sheffield United, Manchester City, Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers have put a smile back on the faces of even the most gloomy sods that choose to sit near me in the Holte End. And did I mention the small matter of signing Darren Bent?
Villa go to Old Trafford having won there for the first time in 26 years last season. Arguably we go there in worse shape than before, but we are in transition and appear to be coming out the other side in fairly combative form. The match will be fascinating in that Houllier is not as predictable tactically as O’Neill.
Under Martin O’Neill even my cat would know which core players would be picked and that against teams such as Manchester United we would play with one lone striker. This hit and run tactic was good enough to get us to sixth, but was not the style that lead to silverware or champions league football.
For all his critics at Villa Park Houllier has persevered and cannot be accused of not trying different things to resolve the glaring issues. He has addressed seemingly loose player discipline and is now getting improved showings from the likes of Richard Dunne. He has also sought to resolve Villa’s ageing central midfield role with the signing of Jean Makoun. Furthermore he purchased the most prolific Premiership striker available in the shape of Darren Bent.
The predictability under O’Neill was the major downfall during his tenure. Our competitors worked us out and beat us, whereas lesser teams suffocated our counter attacks. Our creator was Milner and our goalscorer Agbonlahor. It was not hard to work out. I would say that under Houllier he sets the team up specifically for each match. You can see the tinkering, the positional changes – and whilst not always perfect – it has made us much less one dimensional recently.
Whilst we may not be having a comparable season to those that came before, we visit Old Trafford a fitter and more organised unit than last season. Our difficulty will be resisting a potent United of seasoned championship winning players and young aspiring talent. Whilst we have the element of surprise via our improving set up, United certainly have quality throughout. The current notion that they are not firing on all cylinders is farcical. They win with ease, come back from the dead at a canter and are unbeaten this season. Hardly cause for concern.
The big threats are there for all to see. Berbatov is one of the most gifted players anywhere when on the ball, scores unbelievable solo efforts and is more of a team player of late. Hernandez was quietly purchaed by United and appears the complete goal machine. Rooney, the person and attitude aside, is a phenomenal natural talent. Whilst I wouldn’t have much time for Nani he delivers unplayable crosses and terrifies defences – he is as likely to deliver a goal as an assist. And then there’s Giggs.
I was pondering Pires’ performance against Blackburn yesterday – arguably his best in a Villa shirt. And then watched Giggs come off the bench to destroy Southampton’s dreams of progressing to the next round. Gigg’s, unlike Pires of the same age, remains extremely agile and on his toes. His vision, ability to pick a pass and predatory instinct are very much as they were years ago. I don’t want to see him on the pitch Tuesday evening.
A defeat for Villa looked all but inevitable a month ago. Indeed Houllier had probably crossed off the possibility of gaining anything from this fixture long before. However, I wonder if there might be a sneaking chance to steal something here. Who would have expected us to have turned Manchester City over? We go there with nothing to lose – pundits will undoubtedly write us off – yet on current improving form, nothing would surprise me.
Optimism is flowing through my veins today – Aston Villa to end Man United’s unbeaten season with a 1-0 victory courtesy of a Darren Bent.
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