Aston Villa claimed their first win in six last weekend but will have to be at their very best to secure a second consecutive victory when they host league leaders Manchester United at Villa Park on Saturday (5.30pm GMT, live on ESPN).
Villa are currently 17th in the league, one place lower than they finished last season. Two wins, three draws and five defeats have yielded just nine points from their first ten matches, a points accumulation rate that would see them finish with less than the 38 points that saw them narrowly avoid relegation last season.
Alex McLeish was sacked at the end of last season after serving up dour, ineffective football that saw Villa finish the season as the one of only two clubs to score less than a goal per match on average. He was replaced this summer by Paul Lambert, fresh from leading Norwich to 12th in their first season back in the top flight.
Lambert quickly got to work in bringing in new players, with no less than eight new faces arriving prior to the closure of the transfer window at the end of August. He purchased a mixture of overseas experience and lower league promise, a rag-tag bunch who have taken a little time to acquaint themselves with each other and the demands of the Premier League, but have showed signs of promise in recent weeks.
Ron Vlaar has been strong in the centre of defence and Matthew Lowton industrious at full-back, while midfielder Ashley Westwood impressed greatly in his first start in the victory away to Sunderland last weekend. Christian Benteke has only scored twice, but the young Belgian international has been a consistent threat with his pace and power in the final third.
Lambert has also given opportunities to some of the younger players who were discarded to the fringes during McLeish’s reign. Brad Guzan has done well since displacing Shay Given in goal, while Ciaran Clark, given his opportunity following the summer departure of James Collins and injury-enforced absence of Richard Dunne, has proved to be a competent partner for Vlaar in defence.
Results have been far from spectacular, but there is a feeling of muted optimism at Villa Park, especially following the win at Sunderland. There has been steady improvement from match to match and given further time to impart his ideas and for his players to gel, Lambert should eventually prove to be a far more adept manager than his predecessor.
A Man Utd team coming into Saturday’s match on a run of four consecutive Premier League victories and four wins in their last five league matches away from Old Trafford may prove to be too much, too early for Lambert’s inchoate side.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s men again came from behind to record a 3-1 win away to Braga in the Champions League on Wednesday, the seventh occasion on which they have recovered from conceding the first goal of a match to emerge victorious this season.
Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez were the scorers, three of a number of potent attacking weapons Ferguson has at his disposal.
United are the Premier League’s top scorers so far with 26 goals to their credit. They have only once failed to score – in the opening day 1-0 defeat away to Everton. In all competitions they have scored 41 times (2.56 per match, on average) and have scored twice or more in all but two of their 16 matches to date.
Such prolific scoring has been rendered necessary by a defence that has conceded 24 times (1.5 per match) to date and kept just three clean sheets all season. Sloppiness has pervaded and was in evidence again on Wednesday, Johnny Evans’ clumsy challenge leading to the penalty from which Braga took the lead.
With Nemanja Vidic and Phil Jones both still on the sidelines, the knock Evans picked up in that match may require Chris Smalling to play for a second time in a matter of days after returning from his own injury layoff. Rio Ferdinand, rested from the start against Braga but called into action for the final half-hour in place of Evans, will definitely take one of the two central defensive spots.
Aston Villa v Man Utd Betting Tips Verdict
United are in winning form at the moment and despite Villa’s steady improvement under Lambert they are unlikely to have enough to prevent Man Utd making it five wins on the bounce in the Premier League.
However, given United’s propensity to concede first and the fact that 37.5% of Villa’s goals this season have come between the 15th and 29th minutes, we would not be at all surprised to see Villa take an early lead that they later surrender.