Another crucial Premier League top-four clash pits Manchester United against high-flying Aston Villa at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Lapses in concentration have become a common theme in recent United matches, as they’ve let a two-goal lead slip through their fingers twice in less than three weeks.
Following a stomach-wrenching Europa League elimination at the hands of Sevilla, the Red Devils spurned a 2-0 half-time advantage in another morale-crushing 2-2 draw at Tottenham Hotspur on Thursday.
Despite those setbacks, Erik ten Hag’s men are still in cruising control of their top-four fate, commencing this round six points clear of upcoming rivals Villa with two games in hand.
A victory in this encounter would likely put Champions League qualification beyond Villa’s reach, with the same going for Spurs, who are level on points with Unai Emery’s side.
However, the visitors have turned into one of the most formidable opponents in the Premier League, going unbeaten in their last ten league outings (W8, D2), including a midweek 1-0 home win over Fulham.
Emery has undone Steven Gerrard’s poor management from the first half of the season, turning perennial mid-table strugglers into viable European contenders.
But while they boast some shy hopes of making a late top-four push, this could prove a tall order.
Conquering the Theatre of Dreams for the second season in a row is Villa’s top assignment if they’re to maintain their outside chances of securing a coveted Champions League finish.
Old Trafford has been a definition of a fortress this season, with Man United racking up a jaw-dropping 26-game unbeaten home run in all competitions (W22, D4) since a 1-0 Europa League defeat to Real Sociedad in September.
The Red Devils haven’t lost any of their last 14 league matches on home turf (W11, D3) since Brighton & Hove Albion’s 2-1 win on day one, including back-to-back wins ‘to nil’ ahead of this fixture.
Defensive solidity has been one of United’s best virtues of late, as they’ve strung together four Premier League home matches without conceding for the second time this season.
However, facing Villa has proved an unpleasant experience for Man United lately. They have lost twice in their last three Premier League clashes (D1), as many defeats as in their previous 51 H2Hs (W37, D12).
They slipped to a disappointing 3-1 drubbing in the reverse fixture on Emery’s touchline debut and could lose both seasonal league meetings with Villa for the first time since 1954/55.
Player to Watch: Marcus Rashford
Rashford failed to score in his last Premier League outing at Old Trafford, but he has been Man Utd’s most prolific player at home this season by a fair margin.
With 19 home goals in all competitions under his belt, the 25-year-old forward could become the first Red Devils star since Wayne Rooney to hit a 20-goal landmark at the Theatre of Dreams in one season.
Scoring against Villa has been a challenging undertaking, with the Lions keeping five clean sheets in their last seven Premier League games and conceding precisely once in the other two.
And while Emery’s men have only lost once on their eight top-flight travels in 2023 (W5, D2), Man Utd fans will be pleased to know their only defeat came in Manchester.
But inspired by a rich vein of form, the visitors are unlikely to be daunted by another visit to the city, especially after avoiding defeat in their last five away league matches (W3, D2).
Emery can inspire more confidence in the travelling camp after holding Man Utd winless in all four previous Premier League meetings with them as a manager (W2, D2).
Yet despite Villa’s purple patch and last season’s success at Old Trafford, this is the venue they don’t usually thrive at, having lost nine of their last 11 top-flight visits to United (W1, D1).
Player to Watch: Jacob Ramsey
Villa’s hot prospect Ramsey has been a thorn in Man Utd’s side, scoring in his last two Premier League appearances against them.
If he finds the net on Sunday, he’ll become the first-ever Lions player to net in three successive top-flight matches against the Red Devils.
With Lisandro Martinez and Rafael Varane still out of the picture, Ten Hag must rely on Victor Lindelof and one between Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw to hold his injury-crippled backline.
Maguire is doubtful as he had to skip the team’s trip to Tottenham with a knock, meaning Shaw will likely fill the vacancy as he did in London.
Long-term absentees Donny van de Beek and Phil Jones are still in the treatment room, but Man United received a fitness boost ahead of this clash as Alejandro Garnacho is on the verge of returning to training.
Emery faces a selection headache for Villa, with Matty Cash, Leon Bailey, Philippe Coutinho and Boubacar Kamara dealing with physical problems.
Cash’s injury means that former Man Utd star Ashley Young could start at Old Trafford, while Coutinho’s absence will likely see Emiliano Buendia assume the playmaking reins again.
Manchester United potential starting line-up:
(4-2-3-1): David de Gea; Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw, Diogo Dalot; Casemiro, Christian Eriksen; Antony, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford; Anthony Martial.
Aston Villa potential starting line-up:
(4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Ashley Young, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Alex Moreno; Douglas Luiz, Leander Dendoncker; John McGinn, Emiliano Buendia, Jacob Ramsey; Ollie Watkins.
We Say: Manchester United 2-1 Aston Villa
The absence of Ten Hag’s preferred centre-back pairing is a drawback, but Man Utd have shown no mercy at home this season.
Even though Villa have been in devastating form in 2023, the Red Devils are one of the most unpleasant hosts in Europe, let alone the Premier League.
With just one win in their previous 11 visits to Old Trafford, it’s clear that this isn’t a place where they excel.
Additionally, no team in the history of the Premier League has defeated them more times than United (37).
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