Manchester United travel to Villa Park this weekend with plenty at stake. Having climbed to top spot in the Premier League almost unnoticed, they now have the chance to extend their lead over Chelsea and Manchester City to four points.
City and Chelsea face Tottenham and Liverpool respectively on Sunday afternoon. Both will be hopeful of gaining at least a point from their respective games, but it won't be easy for either; United, meanwhile, take on a lacklustre Aston Villa side and will feel that they must capitalise on the opportunity.
Having lost twice in the league already this season, Sir Alex Ferguson can be forgiven if he has a wry grin on his face when assessing the permutations of this weekend's fixture list. The ball is now in United's court, and on the week that he celebrated his 26th anniversary at Old Trafford, he will revel in the knowledge that he has gained the edge on his big-spending competitors.
At the other end of the scale, Paul Lambert is just beginning his journey with Aston Villa, and still has it all to prove.
As things stand, Lambert would probably be willing to settle for an improvement on last season's 16th-placed league finish under Alex McLeish. Resources are in short supply and, having overseen Villa's worst start to a league campaign since 1970, things will get harder before they get easier. A win on Saturday is unlikely - Villa have won just one of their last 33 Premier League meetings with Manchester United - and Manchester City and Arsenal are next up.
Luckily for Lambert, and Villa, there are three sides that appear considerably worse in the Premier League this season, which should buy the Scot enough time to put together a team capable of climbing away from the relegation zone.
That won't save Villa against United, though. Expect a convincing away win and a comfortable four-point cushion to celebrate Fergie's unparalleled tenure.
Aston Villa player to watch: Gabriel Agbonlahor Since returning to full fitness, the fans' favourite has begun to find his form and stake a claim in the plans of new manager Paul Lambert with some solid displays, most notably the winner against fellow strugglers Sunderland that put some breathing space between Villa and the bottom three. United's defensive weaknesses can be exploited, and Agbonlahor's pace, directness and hunger to impress have the potential to cause Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans or the returning Chris Smalling problems. In fact, since 2006 only Steven Gerrard has scored more Premier League goals against United than Agbonlahor.
Manchester United player to watch: Ashley Young The England international's return to the United starting line-up has coincided with impressive league victories over Chelsea and Arsenal - results that have seen the Red Devils climb to the top of the table. A seasoned performer who made over 150 appearances for Villa, Young will be eager to impress on his return to his former stomping ground. And having not scored yet this season, don't bet against him getting his name on the scoresheet too.
Key battle: Robin van Persie v Ron Vlaar The Dutchmen are key to their sides' chances this season, but in very different ways. Since signing from Arsenal this summer, Van Persie hasn't looked back, banging in eight goals in his first ten appearances and making himself central to United's chances of winning back the Premier League title. Vlaar, meanwhile, has been quickly installed as Villa captain and is looking like the embodiment of Paul Lambert's footballing philosophy on the pitch. It could be that the battle between these two friends decides who comes away with the points. Just don't expect them to swap shirts at half-time.
Trivia: Manchester United's unbeaten run of 16 Premier League games at Villa Park is the longest of any team away from home at a single opponent.
Stats: Villa have opened the scoring in three of the last five meetings at Villa Park with United but were pegged back to two draws and one defeat while United have come from behind to win 12 points this season, more than any other side.
Odds: Confident of an upset? Villa are 6.00 with Bet365, the draw is 4.20 and a Manchester United away win is 1.53. A tempting bet is Van Persie to score two or more goals at 5.00.
Prediction: Even after the midweek trip to Portugal in the Champions League, United should have far too much for Villa. Anything other than an away win will be considered a major upset.
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