A much changed team is expected to be selected following the poor showing in the FA Cup game against Southampton on Saturday. Not for the first time, United were poor in the first half and needed the very real threat of being embarrassed by their league one opponents to jolt them into action. A change of formation and the introduction of game changing substitutes meant that the Reds sneaked into the next round but a much improved performance will be expected at the Theatre of Dreams on Tuesday night.
Aston Villa will arrive on Tuesday on a run of just one win in their last six away matches. However, this could be seen as slightly misleading as the run transforms into two wins and a draw in the last three from all games. The purchase of Darren Bent and to a lesser extent, Jean Makoun has seen the return of a feel-good factor to the club following various levels of turmoil in the earlier part of the season. Previous manager Martin O'Neil quit in the week leading up to the start of the season and there have been rumblings of discontent among staff ever since Gerard Houllier was appointed.
The public display of faith in his manager by the Villa owner Randy Lerner has seemed to galvanise the club over the last couple of weeks to such an extent that the Villa fans have begun to sing the name of their under-fire French manager. This would have been unheard of prior to the massive £30 million outlay on Bent and Makoun.
Many will remember that Villa won the corresponding fixture last year but this was following a poor run of 25 games without victory against Manchester United in all competitions.
I would expect them to come to Old Trafford and play on the counter attack trying to utilise the pace of Young, Agbonlahor and Bent. They will defend in numbers and try to protect their aging centre back partnership of Dunne and Collins. The Reds defence will need to be on their guard as that attacking lineup is liable to cause problems.
Key Player - Daren Bent
What has been holding Villa back over the the years has always been the lack of a quality goal scorer and this was what persuaded them to part with £24 million for Sunderland's Darren Bent. Their top scorers this season are Downing, Heskey and Young who are all on a paltry six. The former Ipswich, Charlton and Spurs hitman begun to repay the faith shown in him by Villa by scoring the winner on his debut against City. Bent can be relied on to get goals for any team he plays for but is seen by many as purely a penalty box predator and that he does not offer much else in terms of team play. The United back line will need to be wary of his movement and although he is often caught offside, if he gets away, his pace would make it hard for him to be caught. A further quality is his ability to react quickly to situations which was shown by his follow up to the shot parried by Joe Hart against City. He was clearly on the move towards goal as the shot left the boot of his team mate ahead of the covering defender and got his reward. He also has a decent record of scoring against the bigger teams so is definitely one to watch.
Normal service should be resumed in terms of team selection for Tuesday's game with all the "big guns" back in contention. The boss confirmed ahead of the game that the first choice back five should be fit to return after missing the FA Cup tie with Southampton for various reasons. The major boost will be the inclusion of Rio Ferdinand whose calm authority was missed from the game versus Blackpool. Also likely to return is Rafael who suffered a bout of concussion that looked to be more serious than has turned out.
Being at home, two wingers are expected to be selected which leaves the usual difficult decision to be made in the centre. Darren Fletcher missed the cup game so will be expected to return and his partner will surely come from either Scholes, Anderson or Carrick. After a poor run of form, it would be expected (or hoped!) that Darron Gibson will be left out but he may have to settle for a place on the bench. Michael Carrick is said to be struggling with a minor niggle so seems likely to be rested until fully fit unless his recovery has been quicker than expected. Scholes played the full 90 minutes on Saturday so with this game coming up so quickly, I will go for Anderson to be the man chosen. He will be looking for a swift return to form after his poorest display of the season last time out. The fact that he seems to be more comfortable on home turf will increase his chances of a good performance although this trait is starting to become a worry when looking to future games.
Up front, it would be a major shock if it was not Dimitar Berbatov plus one other selected. In a normal situation, that person would of course be Wayne Rooney and while it is still likely to be the case, Javier Hernandez is putting amazing pressure on his starting place. Sheer weight of goals from Chicharito means he is making an incredibly strong case for a regular berth in attack, combined with his all round attributes which make him a suitable partner for our top scoring Bulgarian. However, it cannot be denied that Blackpool apart, Rooney has been in reasonable form and has combined with Berbatov well and is simply lacking in a bit of confidence when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net. Just think how the confidence will flood back when this happens, which will leave Sir Alex with an embarrassment of riches in attack once more. United cannot afford to leave the goal scoring burden with just Berbatov and it would be a welcome bonus to see other areas of the pitch chipping in.
I am going to go for a narrow 2-1 home victory with goals from Nani and Berbatov. I feel that Villa may well score but it will only be a consolation.Gerard Houllier will want to get one over on his old friend so I would not expect the game to be a classic. The Frenchman has a record of five victories over Ferguson which is second only to compatriot Wenger with nine.
So, with three points hopefully on the way tomorrow, the Reds will move onto their next challenge against Wolves on Saturday knowing that the dream of a record 19th title is moving ever closer into view.