54 min: Villa are looking for those passes down the half-spaces, between the lines and all that jazz, with Watkins making runs but they have to settle for a corner.
52 min: Mainoo’s ball for Fernandes sees Martinez charge out to claim. The Villa fans in the Holte End get behind their men. United keep trying to send Hojlund beyond that Villa high line. Martinez again serves as sweeper keeper.
51 min: A more sustained United counter and Garnacho wins a corner. Bruno Fernandes will take it. This time, Villa clear it, though there’s a handball claim. It’s not given.
50 min: A Ramsey solo run is averted – just – by some panicky United defending. Then Garnacho is away, sent by Casemiro. But: offside.
48 min: Good save from Onana! Did he mean it? Watkins smashes it at him from point-blank range. Lindelof was guilty of giving the ball away.
47 min: Rashford suddenly finds himself in space, cuts in, but the shot is powderpuff. That was a fine chance he might have done better with.
46 min: More Crazy Train, and we go again. Though Luke Shaw isn’t doing so. He’s been replaced by Victor Lindelof. Will Dalot move left? No, he’s right-sided again, but that’s a sizeable defensive reshuffle.
From the London Stadium, David Hytner.
It had to be Declan Rice. The former West Ham hero had set up goals with whipped free-kicks for William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhães – numbers one and three, to be precise – when Ben White passed back and Leandro Trossard and Martin Ødegaard left it for each other. Enter Rice.
The midfielder’s shot from outside the area curled away from Alphonse Areola to find the far corner and that sound you heard were of seats clicking back and people making for the exits. Rice did not celebrate and when he was substituted immediately afterwards, there was generous applause from the West Ham fans who had stayed.
Norrie Hernon gets in touch: “Isn’t booing just another part of the euphemistic “creating an atmosphere”? It’s neither nice nor sporting, but nor is it new. Managers have for years encouraged both players and crowds to pressure the ref. I think Dave Brailsford would call it a “marginal gain”.
There’s probably a powerpoint display on just that being winged round the OT leadership group.
It’s tense, nervy and biting, and United have a lead because they had worked on set pieces perhaps better than Villa. Plenty of chances at both ends. Plenty of boos too. It would be a surprise if it ends up at 1-0.
45+5 min: United play a corner short, and make too much of it. Then Mainoo is penalised for tactical foul of the type that might one day be a blue card. So too Clement Lenglet, who gets a yellow for dissent…the half is seen out with a right old swedge in the United box, the ball eventually coming off McGinn and going out.
45+3 min: McGinn at the heart of things for Villa, chasing around, buzzing about and then Moreno decides to try and win a foul. It’s not the best acting performance you will see. The RSC will call him, not ask him to call them.
45+2 min: Rick Harris makes a good point: “Fascinating battle for 5th place between two sides who are best on the counterattack, so while United may appear tp be sitting back I suspect they are simply wanting Villa to commit players forward so they can kill them on the break.”
45 min: McGinn shoots at goal, misses but then Onana makes a mess and concedes a corner. Maguire – at the other end – gets it clear. Four minutes added on as the next corner is cleared far more easily.
44 min: Bruno Fernandes is penalised for a foul on Ramsey. He doesn’t get booked. He probably should have been. That was a little reckless. Free-kick in a very dangerous position.
43 min: Luke Shaw has to do some hurried defending as the ball bounces all over the United box. Eventually, the danger is cleared. But then Onana gets pressed hard and shanks the ball out of play.
41 min: Maguire wins the ball from the corner again. This time the knockdown is cleared but not much lateral thinking going on when it comes to defending set pieces from Villa.
40 min: Maguire steps out to smash the ball out. Howls of anguish when Shaw wins a tackle. Then Hojlund wins a corner to, yes, boos.
37 min: Casemiro is booked, the first in the book.
Here’s Stephen Carr: “Hi John. I know you.said there could be no complaints about the goal but I think its maybe worth mentioning the free kick that led to the corner was very generous and Casemeiro, who’s header led to that corner, was clearly offside?”
The first debatable, the second I will have to see again. That they didn’t defend the corner well is undoubted. And that’s the problem when everyone wants to referee the game themselves. We’ve forgotten the rule of playing to the whistle.
34 min: Mega boos when Kamara is robbed on the edge of the box by Mainoo. But cheers when the same happens to Hojlund at the other end. Now there’s some barracking of the ref. After all, there’s a worldwide conspiracy against…checks notes…Aston Villa/Your Club/Delete As Applicable.
To set aside some obvious failing in officialdoms, a big problem is that everyone seems to want to referee the game themselves.
33 min: Unai Emery, the man in black, is in permanent motion on the Villa Park sidelines.
32 min: Garnacho, on the right, drifts the ball in, but not where Hojlund is, and Villa go again. It’s breathless stuff, and as Bailey is the target for a long ball out comes Onana to…just about kick the ball clear. In golf, you’d call that a shank.
31 min: Dalot’s cross is aimed for Hojlund and just cleared. Chances at both ends….soccer! The crowd really into this too.
30 min: Casemiro goes down, and will take his time over getting back up. They’re trying to take the considerable sting from Villa.
28 min: All Villa now. United pinned back and scrabbling. Moreno sends away Ramsey who misses the target. United need to calm it down. They try and do so by passing the ball around.
26 min: Onana was baulked in being brave to deny Watkins. Eventually, and to more boos, the game resumes.
25 min: Another fine Onana save! McGinn again – begin again? – plays in Watkins and the Cameroon goalie throws a Schmeichel-style starfish to deny the striker.
24 min: McGinn absolutely clatters one in and Onana makes a brilliant diving save. That came from the goalie’s ball from the back being lost by Casemiro.
23 min: Now, do United try and sit on their lead? The signs are they might and that’s a dangerous policy considering Villa’s quality and their own quality of defending.
22 min: Close! Bailey gets into his favourite space, and almost bends in his shot. Boos as Onana takes his time over his goalkick.
20 min: Villa force their first corner. Varane heads away with power. The United contingent very loud at the moment. Moreno cuts inside and plays to the highly active Ramsey. This time, the shot flies over.
18 min: The boos that greeted that goal were very loud indeed. There could be no complaints, other than to say the Villa have no answer to Big H’s aerial prowess at the moment.
As predicted, Maguire beats Kamara to the ball, and from the knockdown Hojlund pokes home. That’s five in five for the Danish dynamite.
17 min: If we have the Celebration Police now, how about the Boo Police? Villa fans could up on a charge soon. They don’t like it when United win a free-kick and then a corner.
15 min: But…Varane has to stop a surging Ramsey when McGinn plays a through ball. Then McGinn uses his sizeable haunches to win a bouncing second ball. United eventually clear their lines.
13 min: Last-ditch tackle stops Hojlund who has escaped the offside trap. That’s fine defending. Another corner ends up with Maguire and United keep the pressure on. Garnacho swerves in and back out, his left foot shot just wide. United the better team so far.
11 min: Ramsey on defensive duties comes back to head behind. Up goes Maguire as the heavy artillery. Kamara and Maguire is a battle the United player is winning. This time, he heads wide. But one to watch.
9 min: Shaw’s ball is cut out and Villa spring clear, Ramsey showing Casemiro a clean pair of heels. The danger is cleared and away go United. Rashford goes on, sets up Garnacho but Carlos intercepts. United maybe needed to be more decisive in getting it to Hojlund.
7 min: Rashford is next to be offside. That’s one of Unai’s partypieces, the offside and high line.
6 min: Villa in the United half, the visitors looking to the counter it would seem. Then again, so will Unai Emery. He’s got the better of United before; Gdansk and the Europa League final with Villarreal for one.
Hojlund on the burst from a Rashford pass? Nope, offside.
4 min: Onana smashes a goal kick long and out of play. Maybe that’s why they play them short these days.
2 min: Dalot comes across to stop a galloping Jacob Ramsey, who is a popular selection as a local lad and talented player.
1 min: Away we go, with boos from the home fans for United having the ball. Big chant of Villa Villa. Archibald Leitch’s old stadium makes a lot of noise when it’s buzzing. How much Archie is left is another issue.
The teams are out, with Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train playing as they walk on. Now, is this the re-recorded version with Rob Trujillo of Metallica playing the bass and Mike Bordin of Faith No More on drums? Think so; the original song was recut down on the Blizzard of Oz reissue, fact fans. Randy Rhoads’ guitar lines were retained.
Erik ten Hag wants to catch up. He’s been speaking to Sky Sports: “We have to catch up. We know what position we are in. We got ourselves into it and now we have to step up. That should be the approach for every game because we have to catch up.”
Last time out for both teams.
Oh dear, David Moyes. Very well played, Arsenal.
The top three streak away, leaving Villa chasing, and United chasing yet more for a European place.
All eyes on that United central midfield pairing of master and apprentice.
“I am happy he is back,” Ten Hag said of Casemiro. “For Kobbie, he can learn a lot from him. Kobbie is very coachable and Casemiro has so much experience, Kobbie will learn a lot from it and that will accelerate his development. I am happy to have him and when they play together they can benefit from each other.”
Asked if the two have a strong bond, Ten Hag said: “Absolutely, Casemiro takes that responsibility, he takes it to him, he’s talking to him. I see it in the dressing room, I see it on the pitch, on the training ground, in games. He is looking at his own game but he is looking to help and support Kobbie.”
Just one Villa change, and that’s Youri Tielemans dropping out for Jacob Ramsey. For United, there’s no Lisandro Martinez after that knee injury last week and Raphael Varane comes back in.
Aston Villa: Martinez, Cash, Diego Carlos, Lenglet, Alex Moreno, Kamara, Douglas Luiz, Bailey, Ramsey, McGinn, Watkins. Subs: Tielemans, Digne, Torres, Diaby, Zaniolo, Olsen, Rogers, Kesler-Hayden, Iroegbunam.
Man Utd: Onana, Dalot, Maguire, Varane, Shaw, Casemiro, Mainoo, Garnacho, Bruno Fernandes, Rashford, Hojlund. Subs: Bayindir, Lindelof, Amrabat, Eriksen, Diallo, Antony, Evans, McTominay, Forson.
Referee: Robert Jones (Merseyside)
Manchester United are back, man. Or that’s how it’s felt the last few weeks, a semblance of calm descending, the wheels on the clown car actually turning. Of course, there’s been a few false dawns on the way, and the last of them was beating Villa 3-2 on Boxing Day but maybe with Alejandro Garnacho, Kobbie Mainoo and Rasmus Hojlund putting it together, Erik Ten Hag can create a decent legacy, whatever Big Sir Jim Ratcliffe has in mind for him at the end of the season. As for Villa, their amazing 2023 has not translated just yet into a good 2024. They’re still in touch with the top four though, and beating United would do damage to a rival for a top-four/five place. This could be a good one.
Kick-off at 4.30pm UK time. Join me.