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Dec 11, 2009

ESPN Soccernet Preview: Man Utd v Aston Villa

• Live on ESPN UK at 1700 GMT

"You'll never win anything with kids," was the premature cry from Alan Hansen on the last occasion Aston Villa beat Manchester United - a 3-1 victory in September 1995. We all know what happened next, as United's golden generation went on to plunder title after title, but now those 'kids' - Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville - are closing in on retirement and it's Martin O'Neill's young guns who are catching the eye. Ashley Young, James Milner and Gabriel Agbonlahor are spearheading Villa's assault on a Champions League spot and they certainly have a team capable of improving their dismal record of two wins in 34 Premier League meetings with the 11-time champions.

Last season's encounter at Old Trafford was one of United's defining performances of their title-winning campaign - coming back from 2-1 down to triumph 3-2 with two goals in the last ten minutes, including 17-year-old substitute Federico Macheda's memorable last-minute debut winner. This time, Villa have a great chance to reverse their fortunes against Sir Alex Ferguson's side, but will need to be more ruthless in taking advantage of United's makeshift defence than the wasteful Wolfsburg were in midweek.

United have won three on the bounce - against Everton, Portsmouth and Spurs - since their defeat to table-toppers Chelsea, scoring 11 goals in the process. Since Villa last lost, at West Ham, they have destroyed Bolton, drawn against Burnley and Spurs and beaten Hull. United could find themselves top of the Premier League if they win and Chelsea lose on Saturday, while O'Neill's side could climb to third if Spurs and Arsenal drop points.

United player in focus: Anderson. This is a massive match for the young Brazilian. With Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher otherwise occupied with defensive responsibilities, Anderson has a fantastic opportunity to prove that he can run United's engine room and should be a regular first-choice pick for Sir Alex's side. He flattered to deceive at the start of this season but has found himself increasingly involved of late, and his energy and drive will be vital against Villa's midfield.

Aston Villa player in focus: James Milner. A string of impressive displays this season have thrown the young Englishman into Fabio Capello's World Cup plans. With plenty of competition for a right-wing berth in South Africa, Milner's versatility - he has started the last two games in central midfield, with Stewart Downing on the left and Ashley Young on the right - could be his greatest asset. He will likely play on the right against United and his skill, guile and ability to ghost into goalscoring positions will be a danger.

Key battle: Darren Fletcher v Ashley Young. Scotland captain Fletcher put in an admirable performance in central defence with Michael Carrick against Wolfsburg and will face a similarly stern test against the tricky Young. The 2008-09 PFA Young Player of the Year has not quite reached the dizzy heights of last season but the fleet-footed winger still has the ability to make it a torrid afternoon for Fletcher if he shows no fear in running at United's makeshift right-back.

Tactics: Villa played a 4-4-2 formation at Old Trafford last season, which worked well until the 80th minute. If Sir Alex's side were at full strength on Saturday, O'Neill might have opted for the 4-5-1 that proved so successful in Villa's 3-1 victory at Anfield, but with United's defence depleted; they will believe Agbonlahor and John Carew can do some serious damage.

Vidic will likely be given the job of marking powerhouse Carew, which will leave Agbonlahor free to cause Carrick problems with his pace. Even better for Villa would be if Vidic was charged with watching the more prolific Agbonlahor - despite his past struggles against speedy strikers like Fernando Torres - leaving Carrick to try, most likely in vain, to combat the aerial threat of Carew.

Quotes: Michael Carrick on the possibility of playing at centre-back against Villa: "We will have to see who is back. That might be the end for me (at centre-back). We'll have to see what the body count is like. It is another big game."

Richard Dunne on facing United: "We know on any given day that we can beat anyone. We have got a squad full of top quality talent. Nobody should be afraid going into the game on Saturday."

In the news: Michael Owen stole all the headlines after his performance against Wolfsburg on Wednesday but, despite netting his first United hat-trick, expect him to drop to the bench for the Villa clash. Perhaps the most surprising story of the week was Sol Campbell being linked to a move to Old Trafford, though less of a shock was the former England defender - whose last first-team game was a League Two defeat to Morecambe - admitting he would "love" a move to United.

Manchester United team news: United have been plagued by defensive injuries and another unfamiliar backline will be in action again on Saturday. Michael Carrick may well remain in central defence but the champions will be boosted by the return of defensive rock Nemanja Vidic after a bout of flu as he helps shore up a backline that will see Fletcher moved to right-back. Anderson will lead United's midfield and could be partnered by Darron Gibson in what would be a third consecutive start for the young Irishman. It's likely to be one game too many for Paul Scholes, who played for 90 minutes against both West Ham and Wolfsburg and will likely drop to the bench. Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney all missed the trip to Germany but expect them to all return to the starting line-up.

Aston Villa team news: Defenders James Collins and Wilfred Bouma remain sidelined for Martin O'Neill's side, though the defensive partnership forged in Collins' absence - between Richard Dunne and Carlos Cuellar - has been impressive. Stewart Downing has played Villa's past two games since his return from a long-term injury but he could only make the bench as O'Neill may opt for the steadier central midfield partnership of Stiliyan Petrov and Steve Sidwell, with Ashley Young moving to the left wing.

Probable Manchester United line-up (4-4-2): Kuszczak, Fletcher, Carrick, Vidic, Evra, Valencia, Gibson, Anderson, Giggs, Berbatov, Rooney

Probable Aston Villa line-up (4-4-2): Friedel, L Young, Dunne, Cuellar, Warnock, Milner, Petrov, Sidwell, A Young, Agbonlahor, Carew

Soccernet prediction: United have an impressive record against O'Neill's side and, after many predicted failure against Wolfsburg, Sir Alex's patchwork team produced an efficient display that will make them favourites for this one. With the return of Vidic to central defence, United should look more stable at the back but this is definitely Villa's best chance for victory since that precious win in 1995.

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