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Dec 2, 2011

Villa must not dwell on poor record

ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan is one of English football's most respected figures and he will be writing for ESPNsoccernet throughout the season. As a player, Kevin represented Liverpool with distinction, winning numerous titles in domestic and European football, and twice claiming the Ballon d'Or during his time at Hamburg. Kevin has also managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham.

• Aston Villa v Man Utd - LIVE on ESPN

There's only really one place I can start this week and that's with the tragic news of Gary Speed's death. It's hit everyone in football very hard - it's just a real shock and like everybody my thoughts are with his family. I didn't know Gary really well as it was Kenny Dalglish who signed him after I left Newcastle, but a few of the lads I had there like Alan Shearer and Rob Lee were obviously close to him. I met Gary socially at golf and played with him just four or five weeks ago up in Scotland and it was a pleasure being in his company. From what I've heard in the past few days from people close to Gary, everything I saw in the times I've met him has been underlined ten-fold.

On the pitch, Gary Speed was an outstanding professional, he always gave it absolutely 100% - that's what I liked most about him as a player. His effort and his commitment were always there for all to see, not just sometimes but every game. He was the first player to reach 500 matches in the Premier League, which shows he was not only consistent but was also a player who kept himself very fit and obviously wanted to play football. Whether it was Leeds, Everton, Newcastle, you knew that every time he pulled on the shirt he would give everything - that's why the supporters always loved him wherever he went.

The tributes will continue for some time and there will be minutes of silence or applause across this weekend's fixtures, including at Villa Park, where Aston Villa meet Manchester United. Villa played away at Swansea in the immediate aftermath of the news last Sunday in what must have been a tough game, particularly for Shay Given and James Collins, who played alongside Gary for Newcastle and Wales respectively.

Under the circumstances, the 0-0 scoreline at the Liberty Stadium was not a bad result, but Villa fans are probably starting to get a bit concerned about the number of draws this season - seven so far. While those points could be crucial come the end of the campaign, they really need to start turning some of the draws into wins.

Ahead of Saturday's game on ESPN there has been a lot of talk about Man United's superb record at Villa Park - Villa have not won at home in the league against them since 1995 - and because it's everywhere in the media before the game, there's a risk that it can get into the minds of some of the players. But the idea of having a 'bogey team' never really bothered me when I was a manger - the fact is that the record is against seven different managers and many different teams, so I don't think players should let that sort of history faze them.

What might faze Alex McLeish is the prospect of coming up against his old boss at Aberdeen, Sir Alex, who certainly has the upper hand when it comes to facing his former players. In 79 games against clubs managed by lads who have played under him, Fergie has lost just five. There is a fairly simple reason for this statistic, though, which is that all of those who have faced him have done so with teams that just aren't as good as Man United - Sir Alex's side have been top of the tree for so long and results are hard to come against them anyway. That said, I'm sure Alex McLeish will not be thinking about history going against him, you can't afford to do that as a manager. I'd be telling the players, 'the history is already written but the next page is not and you can go out and write it'; Villa have a great opportunity to get something out of game against a Man United side struggling to fire on all cylinders at the moment.

Villa are in eighth place at the moment but while a win this weekend would probably see people start talking about them getting into Europe, a defeat would probably bring talk of them getting relegated - that's how tight the Premier League is this year. Everyone at Villa Park is still getting used to life with Alex McLeish, who himself is under a great deal of pressure having come to the club from their major rivals Birmingham. Fair play to Alex because it was a very brave thing to do.

The association with a rival club can make life very difficult for a manager, as Steve Bruce has found out after being sacked this week. Being a self-confessed Newcastle fan managing Sunderland, Steve had to get the results or risk the wrath of the fans - obviously he didn't and they can't help holding that association against you. Alex knows that he has to get things rolling at Villa and get the club moving forward. If he takes them backwards even a little bit, the pressure on him is compounded by his Birmingham connection. I think he should be okay as he has done a good job wherever he's been; I can't see Villa being relegation candidates this year, a top half finish is most likely.

They may have sold Ashley Young and Stewart Downing in the summer, but there are still plenty of talented players at Villa. They are built from the back really, with Shay Given in goal and the solid centre-back pairing of Richard Dunne and James Collins - I really like that little triangle. Darren Bent is of course a real threat up front, always sniffing around, and in midfield I think Barry Bannan is a player with bags of ability. He's had some off-field trouble and just needs to focus on football - the off-pitch issues can not only drain you, but turn people against you too. Everyone makes mistakes though, and Alex will have put his arm round him and told him to concentrate on his game.

Villa will obviously be looking to capitalise on Man United's current run of form, which has seen them fail to win the last three games, including that shock Carling Cup defeat against Crystal Palace on Wednesday. But Alex McLeish will of course be wary of a backlash. We've seen so many times over the years that a winless run can be great motivation for Man United - no-one does it better than them. When I was at Newcastle they lost to 5-0 at home to us and then 6-3 away to Southampton but still managed to go and lift the title that season despite shipping 11 goals in two games. They can recover from these bad spells and that's in a big part down to Sir Alex.

It's certainly got the makings of an interesting contest. If Man United have the Young/Rooney combination then they are the pair Villa really have to fear as their creativity and goals have been, and will be, key to United's success. Young was nothing short of sensational at the start of the season and I'm sure he will want to show his former club how much he has progressed.

All told, I see it as a game that may be a bit cagey and despite all the talk of Villa Park being Man United's 'lucky ground', I think Alex McLeish will fancy his chances of getting something. Villa have been the draw specialists this season and I'd say there's a good chance of them getting another one on Saturday evening.

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