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Mar 26, 2014

Fortress Old Trafford is still Villa's biggest challenge

Fortress Old Trafford isn't quite so impenetrable these days but the odds are against Villa becoming the team to inflict a seventh home defeat this season on an out-of-sorts Manchester United.

Why? Because history says as much -- United have long had an iron grip of a hold over Villa.

The Red Devils will finish the season with their lowest points total in over 20 years; falling short of defending the league title they won by some distance in 2012-13 is only the half of it. United won't qualify for next season's Champions League, barring a perfect run from now until the end of the season and a collective loss of form from the clubs above them.

All of which suggests Saturday's game offers Villa the ideal opportunity to record a rare victory and yet, many a claret and blue supporter just wants this match out of the way. For regardless of form, circumstance and everything else, Villa have a horrible habit of surrendering rather meekly to United. It's been that way for a very long time.

Manipulate the statistics and the sequence of results all you like. Villa come out badly, whether the focus is just on more recent games -- United have won the last five, scoring three goals or more on four of those occasions -- or going back even further. The Manchester club has won eight of the last 12 encounters, with Villa victorious just once. And that win, in December 2009, courtesy of a Gabriel Agbonlahor header at Old Trafford, was Villa's only success against these opponents in the last 36 matches. Professional careers have been launched and concluded in less time.

In this fixture last season, Villa were embarrassed, the makeweight opponents on a night of celebration in which United sealed the Premier League championship without getting out of second gear. Robin van Persie scored a hat-trick inside the opening half an hour, and Paul Lambert's players chased shadows for the evening.

Enough of this depressing talk. History is what Villa's players must overlook. In the past, United's reputation has worth a goal head start but as David Moyes admits to the challenge of a major transformation, and struggles to unite a group of players still adjusting to the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, that intimidating influence has waned. Villa must think of West Brom and Swansea, clubs below them in the league table, who have been to Old Trafford and won this season.

It is a matter of fact that Villa have performed well against the top clubs in 2013-14, though it's reasonable to ask whether United can be classed in that group this season. Nevertheless, Lambert's team have beaten three of the current top four -- Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal -- taken a point at Liverpool, been beaten by a single goal at Everton and Newcastle, and also won at ninth-placed Southampton. It's a source of pride -- and frustration, too -- that Villa have performed better against teams in the top ten than the bottom ten.

That's something to take into the game. United are unlikely to sit back and take the pragmatic approach after their derby humbling to Manchester City this week. There will be an impatience around the stadium for goals, which will suit Villa. Lambert's tactics will be familiar: to soak up pressure and counter quickly. It's what worked against Chelsea, and it's a strategy Villa's players are comfortable with.

Despite the disappointment of the campaign, United have players of top quality, of course. Van Persie is absent, but in Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, the hosts have two match-winners of high class. Earlier in the season, Antonio Valencia was superb in the 3-0 win at Villa Park, though the winner won't be facing Antonio Luna this time around. The Spaniard has disappeared from Villa's squad. Ryan Bertrand, who has spoken this week of his time at Chelsea just about being up, should be a more difficult opponent.

But Bertrand, and Villa, have to defend far better than they did last Sunday. After conceding four goals against Stoke, there's a case to be made for leaving every member of the back four that afternoon out. Collectively, and individually, Villa's defenders were poor. Leaving Ron Vlaar out is unthinkable, however, given the club's lack of central defensive options, while Bertrand remains a surer left-back than Joe Bennett.

Leandro Bacuna, the worst culprit against Stoke, should find his place under pressure -- a recall for Matt Lowton must have crossed the manager's mind this week, though the right-back wasn't even in the 18-man squad last weekend. Another possible change could be Ciaran Clark over Nathan Baker. Baker starting ahead of Clark in recent weeks has been a contentious decision anyway; many see the Republic of Ireland centre-back as the more assured defender.

Injuries could force Lambert into change. Karim El Ahmadi and Andreas Weimann were both substituted in the first half on Sunday. If neither are fit to resume, their replacements last week, Yacouba Sylla and Marc Albrighton, could start but Lambert should consider all his options. Limited though they are.

If the Villa manager wants to retain his favoured midfield diamond set-up, it might be smarter to bring Lowton back into the side at right-back, push Bacuna into the No.10 role (Weimann's spot) he looked pretty good in against West Brom a few weeks ago, and give Albrighton the right midfield place that El Ahmadi has made his own this season.

Bacuna is Villa's second leading scorer this season and is arguably better suited to that attacking midfield position than Weimann anyway. Albrighton doesn't have El Ahmadi's passing quality but will press the opposition, and cover his own full-back, and gives the team width and a decent delivery from the flank.

If Lambert decides Sylla will start, he has to do something to make the Frenchman, who has spent most of the season on the bench, more comfortable. That means not playing him wide on the right of midfield, but centrally, where his physical strength can compliment Ashley Westwood's passing.

Villa's travelling support will go to Old Trafford more in hope than expectation, though their club has surprised them a few times this season.

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