After their vital win against Liverpool, Manchester United will aim to further cement their place in the Premier League’s top four when hosting Aston Villa on Saturday. United’s 2-1 victory over their big north-west rivals before the international break provided them a five-point lead over Liverpool in the battle for the final Champions League place. With Liverpool taking on third-place Arsenal also on Saturday, and second-placed Manchester City not playing until Monday, United could even end the weekend in the top two. Indeed, manager Louis van Gaal has not ruled out overhauling leaders Chelsea to take the title.
“You never know [what we can achieve],” he said at Manchester United’s pre-match press conference “When we had 13 points out of 11 [actually nine]matches, there was a lot of criticism and I said ‘OK, we shall divide the prizes at the end of the season.’ It’s like that. It’s still a rat race. Tottenham and Liverpool are still in, of course we have given them a blow, but we have to play against the top three still, so a lot can happen. Still we can win the title, mathematically.”
Chelsea remain eight points ahead of United with a game in hand, yet it is not surprising that there is now seemingly much optimism swirling around Old Trafford. After stuttering along for much of Van Gaal’s first season in charge, his side have produced unquestionably their finest two performances of the season when it mattered most to dent the aspirations of two of their main rivals for a precious Champions League berth.
With Van Gaal having struck upon a successful lineup, he could well again resist the temptation to recall the club’s two biggest-name arrivals of last summer. Despite returning from suspension, record signing Ángel di María had to make do with a place on the bench against Liverpool, while Radamel Falcao has started just one of United’s last six matches. His pleas for more regular minutes after scoring three times for Colombia during the international break look set to fall on deaf ears. Van Gaal will not yet have to make a decision about reintroducing Robin van Persie. The Dutch striker has been missing for six weeks with an ankle injury, and, unlike Luke Shaw, is yet to return to full training.
“We have a process for injured players in the medical department, they then go to a football coach for tests and then to me,” he explained reports Manchester United’s official website. “Robin still isn't with the football coach. He's still not in my group. Luke Shaw is in my group, that's different, but van Persie isn't available.”
For Manchester United’s opponents, taking points on Saturday is equally important. Despite much fanfare surrounding Tim Sherwood’s arrival as manager and back-to-back wins over West Brom and Sunderland, Aston Villa are just three points above the drop zone following a home defeat to Swansea City last time out. Sherwood, though, remains in typically bullish mood ahead of the trip to Old Trafford.
“We need to get something from this game and we think we are capable of doing that,” he said, according to Aston Villa’s official website. “I think they are beatable. They have obviously got a terrific record at Old Trafford but we say it every week, anyone can beat anyone in this division. That's the beauty of the Premier League. We think we are capable of going there and upsetting them. We have a lot of pace on the counter-attack. We are looking to exploit.”
Prediction: With Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata all in the side, Manchester United have had far more fluency in possession in their last two matches. Add to that the presence of Marouane Fellaini, providing an increasingly valuable alternative option, and Van Gaal’s side should make it five straight Premier League wins. While uninspiring, Aston Villa were at least generally accomplished at frustrating top sides and hitting them on the break under previous manager Paul Lambert. Sherwood, though, isn’t nearly so pragmatic and Villa could be punished.
Predicted score: Manchester United over Aston Villa, 2-0
Kickoff time: 10 a.m. ET
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra