One win in 26 meetings is not the sort of statistic that would have Aston Villa confident about facing Manchester United today. But that sole success in December, through Gabriel Agbonlahor's strike, was significant. Their performance at Old Trafford gave Martin O'Neill's men belief they could compete against the best of the Premier League, home or away.
Liverpool, Chelsea and United have all fallen to the claret and blue this season. It vindicates the decision of Stephen Warnock to become part of a whole new defensive structure at the start of the season. "When you added the new players to what was already there, it was always going to be a team challenging for silverware and the top four in the league," he said. "I'd like to think when we beat United, it was that we are now a better team and capable of causing the big teams problems.
"I don't think we really fear anyone. You fear losing a final more than anything. You'd do anything to win it. We know United are such a good team, but we have the players capable of beating them on the day." Their League Cup record against United confirms it too. Villa have won their three previous meetings in this competition, including the 1994 final. This is a competition O'Neill took seriously from the start and the keeper Brad Friedel is the only first-team regular not to figure so far in the competition.
The American is expected to replace Brad Guzan to show just how much O'Neill wants a third triumph as a coach, following two-time success with Leicester. Villa also won the first staging of the competition in 1961 and their last major trophy was the same one in 1996. O'Neill is pinning the club's future on young players like the midfielder James Milner along with the English contingent of Warnock, Agbonlahor, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing.Their youthful exuberance allied with endless potential leaves the Northern Irishman full of hope that Villa will be challenging United for bigger trophies for years to come.
He recalled how his first silverware, as a player under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, came in the old Anglo-Scottish Cup in 1977, when they beat Leyton Orient in the final. "The manager was in raptures about it because it was the first trophy we had won," said O'Neill. "The trophies the team won in the next couple of years, the league title and the European Cups, were founded on winning that trophy. Winning a trophy is the ultimate."
Villa have the ability to do that today, particularly if Young continues his recent form. Warnock added: "As a defender you know that if you can get stuck into a winger and try to give him a tough time, he might not come back as often. Over the last couple of seasons Ash has got a lot tougher. "He's got the speed and agility to get away from people and I'm glad he's not playing against me." email@example.com
Richard Dunne v Wayne Rooney The Irish defender has seen his career rejuvenated since leaving Man City in the summer. Today he faces England's hottest striking talent James Milner v Darren Fletcher Villa's midfielder has been moved in from the wing to devastating effect and United's best player in that position this season must shackle him Gabriel Agbonlahor v Nemanja Vidic If United's dominant Serbian starts as expected after injury, he will have to cope with Agbonlahor's searing pace