Manchester United got the opening Premier League win they craved, but manager Louis van Gaal will be keen to see an improved performance, along with another three points, at Aston Villa on Friday. Against Tottenham last week United got a first win that it took them four matches to achieve last season. But a performance lacking fluidity required an own goal from Kyle Walker to secure a victory and had even Van Gaal proclaiming that his side had been “lucky.”
Indeed, it was a display that harked back to last season, when United, after overcoming a woeful start to the campaign, picked up plenty of positive results despite repeatedly failing to take command of matches. Certainly there was enough to show why Van Gaal has been clear that the team needs more forward options and why a pursuit for Barcelona’s Pedro is continuing. The one attacking player to already arrive this summer, Memphis Depay, made his debut in the famous No. 7 shirt and played a key role in the opening goal, but otherwise suggested he will take time to develop into a consistent influence in the Premier League.
There were plenty of encouraging signs from the other debutantes, however. Matteo Darmain was the pick of the bunch, offering United the sort of solidity at right-back the team lacked last season. And in midfield Morgan Schneiderlin formed a secure double pivot alongside Michael Carrick before another new arrival Bastian Schweinsteiger added vital experience when coming off the bench late on.
Perhaps the most eventful debut was for the most recent signing, Sergio Romero. The Argentina international only had a few training sessions with his new teammates before being thrown into the deep end of a Premier League encounter, following Van Gaal’s decision to leave out David de Gea amid continued speculation about a transfer to Real Madrid.
Van Gaal suggested afterward that De Gea would continue to sit on the sidelines until either he is sold or the transfer window closes at the start of September. Yet, with reports now suggesting he is set to remain at Old Trafford, the Spain international has been included in the squad for United’s Champions League playoff against Belgium’s Club Brugge.
The first leg of the vital qualifier for the group phase will take place at Old Trafford on Tuesday. And thus United will surely be grateful for the extra time to prepare, afforded them by the match with Aston Villa being brought forward to Friday after a request from local police.
Judging by their Premier League record against the Midlands side, United could hardly have wished for more favorable opponents ahead of the meeting with last season’s Belgian Pro League runners-up. In the last 39 Premier League matches between the sides, Aston Villa have triumphed just once.
Still, Villa enter the contest on the back of confidence-boosting opening weekend win over Bournemouth. After narrowly guiding the team to safety last season, manager Tim Sherwood has seen key players Christian Benteke, Fabian Delph and Ron Vlaar depart this summer, while in their place have come a number of new recruits, although most had no previous experience of the Premier League. But it was one of those, towering former Blackburn striker Rudy Gestede, who came off the bench to powerfully head home the only goal against their newly promoted opposition on Saturday.
“There's a spring in everyone's step,” Sherwood told Aston Villa’s in-house television station. “Obviously winning helps. It puts that confidence into the group. We have worked very hard in pre-season so to come off our first game with a victory, away from home with a clean sheet, was all we could ask for.”
Sherwood is set to again be without creative midfield pair Jack Grealish and Carles Gil, along with center-back Jores Okore. United, meanwhile, will once more have to do without Phil Jones, who is suffering with thrombosis, and the suspended Marouane Fellaini.
Prediction: There are reasons for Manchester United to be wary heading into the fixture, not least because of the prospect of Gestede potentially going up against the lightweight Daley Blind, if the versatile Netherlands international is again selected in the heart of defense. But overall there was a more solid look about United against Tottenham than for much of last season. And if they can find some momentum going forward they should have too much for what is still a limited Villa team in transition.
Predicted score: Aston Villa 0-1 Manchester United