If any one fixture summed up Manchester United’s supremacy over their Premier League rivals during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, it would surely be the one that awaits them at lunchtime today. United have not lost a League game at Aston Villa since 19 August 1995, when a 3-1 opening-day defeat to Brian Little’s team led Alan Hansen to infamously declare of that season’s eventual double winners: “You’ll never win anything with kids.”
In the years since, United have produced a series of routine victories and rousing comebacks at Villa Park, leaving seven different Villa managers frustrated as they compiled a record of nine wins and seven draws from their last 16 League visits, with just seven goals conceded. Factor in, too, a 3-2 FA Cup win when United scored three times in the last 13 minutes in 2002, and it is little wonder Gary Neville wrote in his autobiography: “I loved the ground, my favourite one away from Old Trafford.”
Yet the Holte End could be forgiven a glimmer of hope today. Twice in the last three years United have erased two-goal deficits at Villa Park but, as Neville noted this week, that collective “fury” which fuelled the late rallies of the Fergie era was absent as Everton and Newcastle United each ended their Old Trafford hoodoos in the past fortnight. Today it is Villa’s turn to have a go at David Moyes’s team.
According to home goalkeeper Brad Guzan, this is an opportunity for Paul Lambert’s men to go and get three points. “The so-called pressure, I guess, would probably be on them, knowing they are such a massive club that is probably at the moment not getting the results they would like, so for us it’s a chance,” he admitted.
It is tempting to picture opposition teams scenting blood as the opportunity comes round against a suddenly vulnerable United, but Guzan, speaking at Birmingham Children’s Hospital after the Villa squad’s pre-Christmas visit, offered a more careful reading of the situation. “They’ve hit a little bit of a bump in the road in terms of recent results but that in no way takes away from how difficult the challenge will be,” he said. “Any time you play Manchester United, regardless of what’s been going on in their season, it’s always a tough game – they’ve got world-class players that can change a game in a flash. I think they’re always going to have that aura, regardless of the situation they’re in.”
His wary tone is understandable. In November 2010, Villa led 2-0 going into the last 10 minutes before Federico Macheda and Nemanja Vidic rescued a draw. More of the same followed last term with Villa two up after 50 minutes, only for a familiar sinking feeling to take hold: Javier Hernandez pulled a goal back, Ron Vlaar put the ball in his own net, and with three minutes left, Hernandez won it for United.
Guzan believes it would be a different story now. “If we are 2-0 up then yes, you’d like to think we would be able to hold on to that and get a result,” he said, suggesting they paid for a lack of nous last November. “That was our inexperience. Last year we had a lot of guys in their first year in the League and, before you know it, you find yourselves 2-0 up against Manchester United and it can be a bit of a shock.”
Guzan sees a Villa side hardened by their successful fight against relegation. They have tightened up defensively – the American’s five clean sheets so far equal last season’s total – and are five points better off than at this stage last year having earned some notable victories, including a 3-1 opening-day success at Arsenal and smash-and-grab wins over Manchester City and Southampton. “We know we’ve had a few good results,” he said. “Our performances have been OK, but there’s still room for improvement.”
That is certainly true. Christian Benteke’s nine-game goal-less run is his worst in a Villa shirt and their old inconsistency resurfaced with last weekend’s 2-0 loss at Fulham, ending a five-match unbeaten run. Their hopes today are not helped by Fabian Delph’s suspension and captain Vlaar’s struggle to be fit, but they will not be short on motivation. A victory would take them level on points with United – as well as ending that 18-year wait. “If that’s what the stats say, that’s what the stats say,” Guzan said. “We don’t look too much into that stuff – it’s about making sure we rectify our performance from last Sunday and making sure we can be proud of what we put out on the pitch.” Villa’s long-suffering fans might see it differently.
Aston Villa v Manchester U is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm