Gerard Houllier, no stranger to success at Old Trafford as Liverpool manager, returns with Aston Villa tonight searching for a "massive" victory to wreck Manchester United's unbeaten Premier League record – and trusting in the club's oldest-ever player to keep the leaders at bay.
Brad Friedel, aged 39 years and 259 days, will overtake 1940s player Ernie "Mush" Callaghan as the Villa veteran par excellence when he makes his 252nd consecutive Premier League appearance. Houllier last night described the American goalkeeper as "a role model for everyone" and a "very reassuring figure in the dressing room", though he admitted he would discuss Friedel's future with him later this month.
"Let's be straight," said the Villa manager. "At the end of February, we'll have an assessment. I said to him that we're not looking at keepers until we can make an assessment of what level you are and what you want to do. He's happy with that and told me that since he's nearly 40, he understands that at some stage we'll have to change."
Houllier poured scorn on reports linking Villa with Peterborough's Joe Lewis ("pure invention") and Manchester City's Shay Given ("never mentioned"), insisting he was "quite happy" with Friedel. He added: "The proof of that is that if I was unhappy with him I'd have bought a goalkeeper now [during the transfer window], but it never crossed our minds. He's a top-class professional who looks after himself. He trains hard – people forget how hard the goalkeepers work – and does even more with things such as yoga. He loves the game and has a great desire. A good goalkeeper earns you 10 points a season."
Villa, then under Martin O'Neill's stewardship, won at United last season and led Sir Alex Ferguson's side 2-0 in November before having to settle for a draw. Houllier scoffed at the idea that such escapes for United, along with those at Blackpool and West Bromwich, meant their undefeated run was all the more striking because they have not been at their best.
"I wish we could play as badly as they're supposed to have done and have the same record," he said. "They battered Birmingham 5-0 and beat Blackburn 7-1. I don't agree with people saying they're not playing well. I think they are. They have creative players who can make a difference at any stage. To win there would be massive, but we're capable of beating anyone."
Ferguson, meanwhile, should have significant reinforcements available when United bid to extend their unbeaten run to 24 games.
Patrice Evra will return after a short trip to France following a family bereavement, Edwin van der Sar will reclaim a starting spot from Anders Lindegaard and Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Rafael da Silva are all likely to be given the all-clear after recent injuries.
Dimitar Berbatov also sat out Saturday's FA Cup win at Southampton, although whether Wayne Rooney will partner him in attack in tonight's match is open to debate given Javier Hernandez has scored in his last two games.