Villa out to end United jinx

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC/Getty ImagesAndreas Weimann's double was not enough to earn Villa a home win last season versus Manchester United.

Now could be the perfect opportunity for Villa to end a long-running barren run against Manchester United.

After Everton's first victory at Old Trafford for 21 years, and Newcastle's first success in 41 against the same opponents at the same stadium, the previously impenetrable records are tumbling around United. The aura of invincibility that covered the club during the glorious Sir Alex Ferguson has inevitably gone as David Moyes seeks to establish his own dynasty.

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The champions are beginning a state of transition, which makes them vulnerable -- losing matches in which victory was once almost taken for granted. Everton and Newcastle have broken their own respective jinxes in the last couple of weeks, and Sunday's Premier League meeting at Villa Park offers the chance for Paul Lambert's team to do the same.

It's been a long time since the home side won this fixture. Way too long. The last Villa victory is not easily forgotten, not least because it came on the opening day of the 1995-96 season against a United side that included the likes of Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville; young players who went on to define one of the greatest periods in the club's history. Those players have all retired now. It was a generation ago: 18 years.

Villa haven't won since -- in the league, at least, for there was a 3-0 League Cup win in 1999, against what amounted to a United reserve XI (Ronnie Wallwork, John Curtis, Michael Twiss, to name a few). What makes this dry run even tougher for Villa fans to take is that opportunities to end it have come and gone. In November 2010, Villa scored twice late on, 72 and 76 minutes, to take what looked like a decisive 2-0 lead, but United then scored twice themselves to tie it up and salvage a point: two up with 14 minutes to play and the hosts couldn't see it out.

Last November, Andreas Weimann scored twice, his second, on 50 minutes putting Villa 2-0 ahead. Again, United came back to level, and eventually won the game with Javier Hernandez's second of the afternoon three minutes from time. It was another painful reminder for the home fans that nothing can ever be taken for granted against United, not when it comes to games at Villa Park. A further example: in January 2002, Villa hosted a third round FA Cup tie and led 2-0 with 13 minutes remaining. Ruud Van Nistelrooy came off the bench to score twice and United won 3-2.

That's the extent of the grip United have had on Villa for the best part of 20 years. On Sunday, Lambert's team could be 3-0 up with five minutes to play, and there would still be nervous fidgeting and twitching in the Holte End. The best Christmas present for any Villa fan would surely be an end to that feeling that Manchester United are unbeatable at Villa Park.

This one-sided track record is reason for Villa to approach Sunday's match with trepidation. Yes, United are misfiring, failing to click, and have weaknesses exposed, but there is still enough quality in Moyes' squad to give Villa a testing afternoon. And Villa are not in the best form, either. Last weekend's defeat at Fulham showed Lambert's team still requires significant improvement.

Defensively, Villa struggle without Ron Vlaar, and there is no firm update on his return from a calf injury. It can't come soon enough for a team which has also been without left-back Antonio Luna recently, and was in disarray at the back against Fulham. Matt Lowton has been tipped for a return to the starting line-up, and given Villa's stretched defensive resources, that would be a sound move.

In midfield, Villa are consistently failing to retain the ball for long enough, and effectively enough, to get much influence in games, and that situation won't be helped by being without the suspended Fabian Delph against United. Delph has been, by some distance, the best midfielder in the squad this season and quite possibly the club's best player too.

Finally, Villa's forwards are failing to reproduce their form of the second half of last season. Gabby Agbonlahor was sharp and dangerous against both Fulham and Southampton, but Christian Benteke continues to toil without success, in one of those runs where nothing he attempts comes off, and Weimann has been ineffective for too long during 2013-14. Libor Kozak has a toe injury and may again be unavailable.

There's little point in playing three strikers if the midfield is so overwhelmed and out-played they are unable to supply the front men. Lambert should abandon his ideal of a front three and revert to something more solid. A back four with as many players, as possible, in their familiar positions -- which means Lowton at right-back and Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker as the centre-back partnership (assuming Vlaar is still not fit); Luna's recovery is vital.

With Delph out, a recall for Yacouba Sylla to provide strength and extra defensive cover alongside Ashley Westwood in the centre of midfield would be an option, with Leandro Bacuna and Aleksandar Tonev on the right and left flanks and, further upfield, Agbonlahor supporting Benteke in a front two. A 4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1 -- a conventional formation which should give Villa a more disciplined shape, and make them more involved in the game, rather than relying on rebuffing attacks and hitting long balls forward.

After the dismal experience against Fulham, ending this lengthy winless streak against United would be a timely boost heading into the hectic Christmas fixture programme.


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