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Aston Villa 0 v 3 Manchester United

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In the first of three meetings in the next few weeks, United travel to Villa Park to face Martin O'Neill's charges.

Villa Park
Saturday, 23 December
Kick-off: 1500 GMT

Aston Villa's Gavin McCann will be given until the last minute to prove his recovery from a hamstring injury he picked up last weekend against Bolton.

Young midfielder Craig Gardner is standing by for his first start of the season in what is likely to be the only change to Martin O'Neill's side.

Premiership leaders Manchester United are set to name an unchanged team.

Defender Patrice Evra remains doubtful with a calf injury, while Alan Smith is still battling for full fitness.


Aston Villa (from): Kiraly, Olejnik, Mellberg, Hughes, Cahill, Ridgewell, Samuel, Bouma, Barry, Agbonlahor, Petrov, McCann, Gardner, Davis, Angel, Baros, Sutton, Agathe, Whittingham.

Manchester United (from): Van der Sar, Kuszczak, Neville, O'Shea, Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze, Evra, Silvestre, Fletcher, Ronaldo, Scholes, Carrick, Giggs, Richardson, Park, Rooney, Saha, Solskjaer.


Aston Villa defender Gareth Barry:
"It gives us the chance to give the fans the perfect Christmas present.
"West Ham showed last week that United are not unbeatable, we'll have to be at our best and hope for a bit of luck along the way.

"We know it's a tough game, and our record against United hasn't been that good in recent years."

Defeat at West Ham still rankles with Man Utd boss Sir Alex Ferguson:
"We have to make sure we get back on track.
"This game is an obvious target but the most important thing is to win the league and we're capable of doing that.

"We're here for the long haul, and traditionally we always do better in the second half of the season."


ASTON VILLA and Manchester United meet at Villa Park in a dress rehearsal for next month's FA Cup third round tie at Old Trafford. Villa are on the equal longest current winless run in the Premiership of six matches, as they prepare to face the League leaders in the pre-Christmas fixture. They will not want to hand too many presents to United, as defeat could see the Midlanders slipping out of the top half of the table, following an impressive opening to the campaign.

This is set to be a fascinating tactical duel between two of the most successful managers in British football, Martin O'Neill and Sir Alex Ferguson, and pits this season's Premiership specialists against the most prolific winners. Villa have lost only one more match than United, but are 19 points worse off.

Villa have failed to beat Manchester United in 16 League and Cup matches, since a 3-0 triumph in the third round of the Worthington League Cup on 13 October 1999. Their last home Premiership victory over the Red Devils came on 19 August 1995. Ian Taylor, Mark Draper and a Dwight Yorke penalty were the scorers in a 3-1 success.

MANCHESTER UNITED have the chance to re-establish a five point lead at the summit, before second placed Chelsea take on Wigan in the teatime kick off at the JJB. United lost away to West Ham last time out, while the champions won at Everton. The Red Devils will need at least a point from another game against a club who play in claret and blue, to ensure they spend Christmas Day at the top of the tree. This match completes the first half of the season, and a victory would give United 47 points. Every club that has stood on at least 47 points after 19 games has gone on to win the title in the history of English top flight football (calculating three points for a win).

The Old Trafford club have not lost successive Premiership matches in 61 games, since Norwich and Everton beat them on 9 and 20 April 2005 respectively, both away. Their holiday programme comprises of home games against Wigan on Boxing Day and Reading on the following Saturday, and a New Years Day trip to Newcastle.

United have 'doubled' Villa in each of the last three seasons, and are vying for an eighth successive Premiership victory over them. They've kept clean sheets in winning the last four League trips to Villa Park, and have not lost home or away to the Midlanders in a club record 21 meetings (15 wins, six draws). Their longest undefeated away streak against a single opponent is 11 matches (West Ham). That record was broken last Sunday. Should the table toppers avoid defeat against Villa, they would equal that record. Should they win, it would be United's eighth successive victory at the Villa Park ground (four Premiership trips, FA Cup third round ties in 2002 and 2004 and an FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal in 2004).

Steve Bennett (Orpington, Kent)
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@redmaster: You'd better see it because it was by far GOAL OF THE SEASON. Better than Drogba's beauty because Scholes took it on the volley @ a far greater distance. Credit to Gabor Kiraly for getting a few millimeters of his gloves to the ball, but that one was just unstoppable.

I was about to write a short piece questioning why there was a lack of long-range shots from the Ginja Ninja, but I can't very well do that now, can I ?
Match Report

Manchester United returned to form with a convincing victory at Aston Villa.

Villa were unfortunate not to take the lead when Craig Gardner headed against a post before United took control.

Cristiano Ronaldo lashed home the opener after a great solo run before Paul Scholes crashed home an unstoppable 25-yard volley.

United, who started with Wayne Rooney on the bench, added a third when the impressive Ronaldo slid the ball in from a Gary Neville cross.

Before the game, former Villa manager Ron Saunders was given a standing ovation on his first return to the ground in over 20 years.

Saunders, 74, won the league as Villa boss in 1981 using just 14 players during the entire season but quit because of a contract dispute before the team won the European Cup a year later.

United, who were without the injured Michael Carrick, found life difficult as Villa started the brighter of the sides in what was the first of three meetings in as many weeks.

The home side - with Gabriel Agbonlahor pushed up alongside Chris Sutton in attack - were unlucky not to take a 15th-minute lead when Gareth Barry's free-kick was flicked on by Sutton to Gardner, whose header came back off the post.

United defender Nemanja Vidic was rightly booked for an awful tackle on Agbonalahor before Park wasted a great chance when he mis-hit a shot when well placed.

After being slow starters, United gradually got into the game and the fit-again Patrice Evra angled a low drive at goal which on-loan Crystal Palace keeper Gabor Kiraly got down well to keep out.

Ryan Giggs then curled in a corner from the right which was met by Ronaldo but again Kiraly saved.

Villa came under more pressure when Giggs released Ronaldo into the left side of the penalty box. The Portugal winger cut inside Aaron Hughes but fired a shot inches wide of the far post with Kiraly beaten.

Saunders was honoured at half-time

New Villa owner Randy Lerner made a presentation to Saunders at half-time, but it was United boss Sir Alex Ferguson who was celebrating as his team took control in the second half.

They broke the deadlock before the hour mark when Ronaldo ran from the halfway line towards the Villa box.

He went unchallenged and saw his first shot blocked by Gary Cahill before lashing in the rebound past a helpless Kiraly.

Scholes then scored one of the contenders for goal of the month on 64 minutes when he brilliantly volleyed over Kiraly and into the net from fully 25 yards after a Giggs corner was headed out by Gavin McCann.

Villa then had to cope with the introduction of Rooney as United looked to turn the screw following their shock 1-0 defeat at West Ham last Sunday.

Scholes picked up his fifth booking of the season before Ronaldo had an effort correctly disallowed for offside as United finished on top.

They made it 3-0 with five minutes left when Rooney opened up the stretched Villa defence and found Gary Neville on the right and his slide-rule cross was turned in by man-of-the-match Ronaldo.


Aston Villa boss Martin O'Neill:
"We were playing very well indeed until they scored the first goal - which was very avoidable from our point of view.
"We lose possession, they score. We've got a lot of young players in the side and that sort of experience will bring them on immensely.

"You make mistakes against top quality sides and you'll remember them."

Man Utd manager Sir Alex Ferguson:
"It's a big result after last week's disappointment when we controlled a game we should have won.
"But today the players got to grips with the game, played some great football and showed determination.

"Ronaldo was unbelievable, he was a revelation today and he is as good as anyone in the country."


Aston Villa
: Kiraly, Hughes, Mellberg, Cahill, Barry, Agbonlahor, McCann (Angel 76), Gardner, Petrov, Davis, Sutton. Subs Not Used: Olejnik, Baros, Bouma, Ridgewell.

Booked: McCann, Sutton.

Man Utd: Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Ronaldo, Fletcher, Park (Rooney 66), Scholes (Silvestre 88), Giggs (O'Shea 88), Saha.
Subs Not Used: Kuszczak, Brown.

Booked: Vidic, Scholes.

Goals: Ronaldo 58, Scholes 64, Ronaldo 85.

Att: 42,551

Ref: S Bennett (Kent).
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