Manchester United faced Aston Villa this week, an easy fixture compared to the previous week's match against Liverpool and their next two clashes against Manchester City and Chelsea. The Red Devils sought their fifth straight win in Barclays Premier League competitions; Aston Villa simply chased a point-earning result to remain above the relegation zone.
Louis Van Gaal stuck to his winning formula, selecting a side that barring a knock to Chris Smalling would have mimicked his winning sides of the past week. De Gea started in net again. Daley Blind, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Smalling's replacement, and Antonio Valencia rounded out the back four. Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera, and Juan Mata played in midfield in their accustomed positions. Wayne Rooney started as the lone striker.
Aston Villa were lucky to escape early without conceding a penalty kick or receiving a red card for an awkward challenge in the 18 yard box, when defender Kiaran Clark dragged down Wayne Rooney. United's Antonio Valencia was fortunate to receive no yellow card, but just a chiding on a late challenge on Fabian Delph.
In the first half, United dominated possession of the ball; even after losing possession on a shot on goal or difficult pass, they typically won it back before Villa could muster any attack on goal. Aston Villa seemed up to the task, rebuking United's efforts at every opportunity until three minutes before halftime. Manchester found most of their success going forward on the left side of the field, attacking Villa right back Alan Hutton, who picked up an ankle twist. Daley Blind was played through on the left side of the box, picked up his head, and played a curled pass to Ander Herrera at the top of the box. He had time for two touches; the first settled the pass and the second, taken on his left foot, drove the ball past two Villa defenders and diving goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
Early in the second half, United dominated possession yet again, but this time with less fruits to bear. They moved the ball less effectively with little cohesion. There were also some nervous moments in defense. An Aston Villa free kick from right outside the 18-yard box provided real alarm.
Wayne Rooney did well to dispel that feeling of panic with a moment of brilliance, a definite goal of the week candidate. Ángel Di María, substituted for Ashley Young, dribbled his defender and played a cross into Rooney. Rooney controlled the ball with his foot at near shoulder height then smashed the rebound with a sensational half volley.
United's two goal lead would only last 94 seconds. On a corner kick, the ball rolled into the box where it was hit, not all that well, by Christian Benteke right at David De Gea's feet, managing somehow to beat the in-form goalkeeper. The game became uncomfortable for United after the Aston Villa score with a palpable sense of fear, a fear of a match-leveling goal.
Ander Herrera would do well to quell those fears with the second goal of his brace. Off a drop ball, Rooney revealed his desire to win by not only gaining possession of the loose ball, but also dribbling the ball just shy of the Villa box. He played Juan Mata through, who in turn played a wonderful layoff pass that found Herrera with yards of space and the Villa net gaping. Herrera slotted his finish deftly, leaving no doubt about the goal or the result of the match, another United victory.
United are truly peaking at the right time, a finish in the top four becoming a comfortable reality. In fact, they closed the week in third place following Manchester City's defeat at Crystal Palace. United are 8 points clear of Liverpool and Tottenham, who are level on points in 5th and 6th. Still, despite their recent run of success, the title remains a distant goal to United as Chelsea continues to rattle off victory results with a game in hand to play against Leicester City. United's next two matches against their in-town rivals, Manchester City, this week and the following week against league-leading Chelsea will paint a better picture of their title chances. Manchester City are in a rut form-wise ever since their defeat at Anfield, also losing on Monday to Crystal Palace. United would do well to capitalize on this opportunity and avenge their away defeat earlier in the season.
Robin Van Persie announced via Twitter that he would be match fit for the derby, which provides an interesting dilemma for Louis Van Gaal's team selection. The Dutch manager should stick to his current starting eleven only deploying Van Persie in an emergency should United be pressed to score a goal late in the match to earn a result. Although, I would not put any heroics past the Dutch striker, Rooney has taken very well to playing up front, and to remove him now would be a true injustice the United skipper.
United host City at Old Trafford for the Manchester Derby next week Sunday, April 12th at 11:00am. The game will be covered on NBC Sports Network.