When Aston Villa rocked up at Old Trafford back on December 1, all they had to do was to look at the Manchester United teamsheet and feel the belief they could get a result.
Injuries had begun to decimate United’s midfield, with Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay unavailable. Bruno Fernandes meanwhile was just a mere pipedream, one United fans had given up on after a summer pursuit which provided only false hope.
United lined up in the match at home to Aston Villa with a midfield trio of Fred, Andreas Pereira and Juan Mata.
The match was a painful one to watch for United fans, a 2-2 draw salvaged by a Villa own goal and a rare effort from Victor Lindelof, and marred by sloppy defensive errors.
Of the midfield trio which started the last game with Villa, only Fred has a chance of starting.
He has not started any of United’s last three Premier League games, but he could be an option if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer mixes it up.
Fred has had a good season, but his brief partnership with Andreas Pereira was not one anybody wants to see repeated.
Pereira struggled as he did a week earlier in the 3-3 draw at Bramall Lane. He won just one tackle and made no interceptions in midfield, while just two of seven crosses he made found their target.
Fred did not do badly, creating three chances, but United’s attack failed to click. Mata had a quiet game, touching the ball just 33 times in 78 minutes before he was substituted.
Dan James started, and had seven cross attempts, of which none were accurate.
Far more threat now
While United’s teamsheet and disjointed performance gave Villa confidence, the same cannot be said this time around.
United have a fully fit squad to choose from, and have been kickstarted by the January signing of Bruno Fernandes, who has seven goals and six assists already to his name.
Villa boss Dean Smith described United at his Sky Sports press conference as, “a team who are full of confidence and the main man to watch is Fernandes who’s been outstanding for them.”
There was no such talking up United’s form, attacking unit, or any individuals ahead of December’s Old Trafford clash.
Villa’s players are likely to be more wary of United’s threat, and the old fear factor is beginning to come back.
It is quite a turnaround. United’s team selection tonight is unlikely to feature Juan Mata, Andreas Pereira, and Dan James. Fred may not get a look in himself.
This underlines how United have been able to move forward in recent weeks. Sometimes it really is that simple as having your best players fit and healthy.
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