It is arguable that Aston Villa as a club do not get the respect as a “big club” that they truly deserve, with their seven First Division titles, seven FA Cups and of course, the crowning achievement – the European Cup victory of 1981 often being overlooked thanks to the peaks and troughs of their recent history.
Though today they sit on the outside looking in in terms of competing for even continental qualification – there was a time, not thirty years ago, when they were one of Manchester United’s biggest obstacles to their first Premier League crown in twenty-six years.
And while Manchester United’s yearning for a title hasn’t had a quarter of a century to develop – it will have been eight years come May – a victory over Aston Villa on New Year’s Day could echo the battles of the early 1990s.
A defeat and a draw – but still a ten-point victory
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United side, while still in pursuit of the Premier League trophy, could achieve something on New Year’s Day that Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United of 1992-93 couldn’t – beat Aston Villa.
Aston Villa were a thorn in United’s side in the 1992-93 campaign, as the two sides met on three occasions – four if you count a pre-season exhibition prior to the season’s kick-off. However, it was perhaps their encounter on the 7 November 1992 that meant the most in that campaign.
United made the trip to Villa Park in early November on the back of a shock defeat to Wimbledon at Old Trafford, with Lawrie Sanchez getting the decisive goal between the two sides, and the Reds were all-in-all winless in six. The run extended to seven as Dalian Atkinson’s sweeping finish into the bottom corner after twelve minutes condemned United to defeat, as Ferguson’s side had gone almost two months without victory.
Ferguson’s mind had been made up by this point – there was a need to fill the gap left by Dion Dublin’s leg break in September against Crystal Palace. United’s two-pronged attack of Mark Hughes and Brian McClair was missing something – the pair had scored just six goals between them all year, and following the loss to Villa and a subsequent victory over Oldham Athletic, United brought in Eric Cantona from Leeds United, who would be the catalyst for an upturn in fortunes for Ferguson’s side.
Incidentally, when the two sides met again in March, it was Mark Hughes who grabbed United’s goal in a 1-1 draw – after being set up by Cantona – and Villa spiralled into a poor run of form, despite former United manager and then-Villa boss Ron Atkinson hubristically questioning whether his former side would have ‘the bottle’ as the run-in approached. It would be Villa who stumbled over the line, with United claiming a ten-point victory at the top of the league table.
And while United ultimately didn’t need a victory over Aston Villa in 1992-93 to claim a league title, this year it seems Solskjaer’s side won’t be in direct competition with the Villains. But a win this time round could be all the more crucial, as United try to prove they aren’t title ‘pretenders’, but contenders.
The threat Villa pose today
Perhaps Aston Villa won’t be winning any top-flight titles in the next few seasons, but in today’s football they still pose a considerable threat to the title ambitions United appear to hold. The Reds are on a mission to prove that they can keep pace with leaders Liverpool, and a victory over a well-structured Aston Villa side will – like their victory against Wolves earlier in the week – go far in proving their suitability to be title contenders.
The likes of Jack Grealish and the in-form Anwar El-Ghazi could cause United's defence some headaches: Nemanja Matic struggled against Wolves in midweek due to a lack of mobility, and the tricky footwork of the Villa attack could un-do a player like Matic.
A midfield of Fred, Scott McTominay and Bruno Fernandes could provide United with the mobility to cope with the fast-paced and exciting Villa attack, as well as a similar backline to the one that faced Wolves on Tuesday evening.
There is one parallel that could be considered between the two sides – United of today and United of 1992 - however tenuous it might be: United’s hand were forced last season into buying a hard-working talisman full of flair and a determination to win, whatever the cost – just like in 1992.
Eric Cantona unlocked that side for Alex Ferguson just like Bruno Fernandes has unlocked this United team for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and though ultimately the final results of the two sides may not be the same – with that talisman lifting the Premier League trophy after years of anguish for Manchester United – Solskjaer’s side certainly has the foundations and the structure to kick on and build a title-challenging unit for years to come.
A victory over Aston Villa on New Year’s Day could well be the proving ground for whether United are title contenders - or like Villa in 1992-93 - title pretenders.