Aston Villa vs Sheffield United – Pre-game Assessment

Friday, Dec 22nd, 20.00 – Villa Park

Referee: Anthony Taylor

What a perfect set-up for our Villains!  Tied with Liverpool and only one point behind Arsenal, a win this Friday against Sheffield United at Villa Park will put us at the pinnacle of the Premier League by two points.  Of course, whoever wins when Arsenal visits Liverpool on Saturday would leap-frog over us by one point or by goal difference but, what happens if they tie, as is quite likely?  Then, we get to stay top over Christmas.  What a present!  Even better is that a victory at Old Trafford on Boxing Day will keep us top!  This could the best Christmas present ever for long-time Villa fans.

That brings us to this next home game.  If ever there was ever to be the perfect “soft ball” to hit out of the park, it this year’s sorry side from Yorkshire.  Last year’s EFL Championship runners-up are dead last in the Premier League with only two wins and two ties from 17 games.  Two of those wins and one of the ties was at home.  The lonely point they earned away from Brammall Lane was against Brighton at Falmer Stadium in November.  Brighton scored after 6 minutes and dominated the game into the second half squandering numerous chances to add to their lead by pinging shots from distance and shooting right at goalie Wes Foderingham.

Then Brighton’s midfielder, Mahmoud Dahoud, threw the Blades a lifeline by stamping on Blades’ Osborn’s ankle and getting himself a red card.  United gained a spring in their step and attacked and, voila, they put a cross through the 6-yard box that Brighton defender, Adam Webster, tried to clear only to put the ball into his own net.  Other than that, the Blades only managed one shot on goal, but they had earned a 1-1 tie from an away game, the only time all season they returned home with something to show for it.

There are lessons to be learned from Brighton’s experience that are particularly salient given the lack of composure of some of our players against Brentford.  One lesson is that we cannot rely on Unai Emery being near Emi Martinez so that he can grab the large Argentinian before he earns himself a red card!  Emi needs lots of anger management reminders this week that calm him down without affecting his game peak-performance preparedness. 

That is not a trivial matter.  Martinez has been superb throughout this season with one exception.  That was against Nottingham Forest when the fixture followed an emotional ceremony in which he won the Yashin Trophy of the Ballon d’Or awards.  Six days later he faced three shots and two beat him.  That was on November 5th and was Villa’s last loss.  Emi proved that even the best can have a bad day.

As important, is that all our players must avoid unnecessary cards, especially red cards against the Blades.

Not to be discounted is how fortunate our team has been to avoid the run of injuries that other teams have incurred (e.g., Newcastle).  The continuity and the consistency of having key players always available has been very beneficial.  In fact, the absence of Douglas Luiz and Lucas Digne in Sunday’s game made it more difficult to overcome a stubborn Brentford.  Now, we have three very valuable assets unavailable for Friday.  Emery announced that Pau Torres and Youri Tielemans are injured, adding to Boubacar Kamara who is serving his red card penalty.  That is a lot of creativity missing.

 As far as the Villa line-up, it is difficult to predict what Unai will decide.  For example, whether he will reinsert Digne, his season-long left back, after his one game suspension or build on Moreno’s match fitness that was evident as the Brentford game progressed.  Either way, he will likely share the load between both players by substituting during the game.

With respect to Torres’s replacement, if Emery wants like-for-like, he will bring in Lenglet.  That way he can play with his preferred 3-5-2 formation.  However, he can revert to the 4-4-1-1 formation that he used against Arsenal and Manchester City by having Cash return to right back and Konsa and Carlos sliding over.

While Cash failed to impress against Brentford, Emery might be loathe to use Lenglet who is likely to be going back to Barcelona in the new year.  I expect to see Cash preferred to Lenglet.

Zaniolo could have justified another start, based on his impressive, though short, run at Brentford, replacing Kamara.  Emery will organize the trio of McGinn, Luiz, and Zaniolo, to match their strengths.

That will leave places for Diaby and Ramsey to pair up with Watkins up front in a in a 4-3-3 line-up.

Result Prediction:

I believe we will extend our Premier League home winning streak to 16 in a row.  Prediction:  Aston Villa 3, Sheffield United 0.

Predicted Villa Line-Up:

Aston Villa: (4, 3, 3) Martínez, Cash, Konsa, Carlos, Moreno, McGinn, Luiz, Zaniolo, Diaby, Ramsey, Watkins.

Subs: Marschall, Bailey, Digne, Dendoncker, Chambers, Durán, Iroegbunam.

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