The first half of the gruelling fixture list was accomplished at aplomb with Louis van Gaal outwitting two of the most tactically astute managers in the league, Mauricio Pochettinho and Brendan Rogers. In doing so, Manchester United effectively resigned both sides from Champions League contenders to Champions League hopefuls. As it stands, one of Arsenal and or United will have to suffer a meltdown in the space of 7 games to lose their status.
It's a well earned reward then that in the watershed fixture ahead of games against the top two sides, United are at home against a side in the lower half of the table. At home against a lower tier side is a combination that has worked well for us this term enroute to establishing the best home record in the league. Our home form is just about the only reason our reason still has life in it.
The biggest draw this weekend is not that we are at home against Aston Villa but that the two teams either side of us in the log are facing off in the early fixture before our game on the Saturday. It means, if the form book and indeed the script are to be followed, we could be looking at real daylight between ourselves and that dreaded Europa league spot. 8 points to be exact if Liverpool lose at the Emirates, a gap that will be decisive regardless of the fixtures we still have to play.
But first to the matter at hand: Tim Sherwood has transformed Aston Villa since he took charge about a month ago. It is notable that even when Villa were at their worst back in December, we still failed to beat them at Villa Park. But such has been our away form that relegation certainties like Leicester City looked like Barcelona when we visited them back in April. Although the joke is on us that Tom Cleverley is going to Wembley and not us, Aston Villa should be there for the taking on Saturday.
However, unlike the duo of top games we've just won, possession will not be up for grabs on Saturday. As sure as the sun will rise from the East on that day, so shall we boss the ball on matchday. The question is what we shall do with it. We've struggled to break down sides that sit back with two banks of four against us, especially away from home. It's been easier at Old Trafford because of the sheer size of the pitch that has made it quite difficult to keep United out for 90 Minutes.
Our struggles were down to the absence of our two genius midfielders in tandem. Ander Herrera and Juan Mata are now very much apart of the furniture of the first team that it shouldn't be a problem finding inroads in the Aston Villa defence that could yet feature just one recognised defender.
The International break could have yet cost us a couple of players.Chris Smalling was ill for England and so had to come off so that could be the one change from the side that performed so well in the last couple of games. It was interesting watching him bring out the ball from defence for England in his brief cameo on Tuesday. He is learning the art of a cultured defender fast and so it will be a shame if injury yet again halts his good progress.
In the main though, it will be the general expectation from fans that the boss keeps the same line-up for the third game running to continue to harvest the understanding and continuity of first fully balanced side/formation that he has come up with this season. As I've blogged before, this is not the time to find out whether the players make the system or the system makes the players. With only a month left of the season after this, the points are dear. You do not want to flirt with experimentation at this stage. That can be saved for pre-season. The fear though is that a Saturday fixture might come too soon for players that will travel 15 hours to Manchester from South America and the like. That remains the only likely cause for numerous changes to the team.
It's a measure of the expectation in this fixture that a worried colleague of mine who is the ultimate pessimist predicted a 2-0 win for United as opposed to the 7-0 and 9-0 of my other colleagues. Of course football has a way of kicking you in the teeth and turning the world as we know it upside down but United have just one job on Saturday, win!
Confidence is sky high heading into derby week, but goodness me it will be deathly nerves all over again if United somehow bottle-up this fixture. It's a mini-holiday this Easter period, and hence quite a load of time off work to digest the next result, chances are it will be a great one!