Aston Villa-Manchester United Preview
It's a day of reckoning some can argue has been more than five years in the making for Aston Villa. Fans of the Midlands club can only hope the rebuild to return to the Premier League won't take as long.
With relegation assured via a draw, a loss or any non-Norwich City defeat, Aston Villa appear ready to swallow the most bitter of pills Saturday when they face Manchester United at Old Trafford.
It was never supposed to be this way for Aston Villa (3-7-23), an original founding franchise of the Football League in 1888. They will soon no longer be one of seven teams to have avoided the drop since the inception of the Premier League in 1992, and their fate is almost certain to be mathematically assured this weekend - perhaps even before kickoff - given their terrible season-long form.
For such a proud franchise - Villa have won seven First Division titles, seven FA Cup titles and five League Cup titles in addition to the 1982 European Cup and UEFA Super Cup - it hasn't been as much a fall from grace as it has been a gradual slide from mediocrity to fighting for survival, and now, looming banishment to the Championship in their first relegation since 1987.
"It's a sombre mood, as you would imagine," acting manager Eric Black told the team's official website. "We're not relegated as yet but we're not far off. I am sure this club will one day come back.
"It's going to be a mighty challenge, an enormous challenge. But, my goodness, it's a hard challenge. It's a huge turnaround at a club and it's a different division."
Some point to Aug. 9, 2010, as the start of Villa's decline. That was the day current Ireland manager Martin O'Neill resigned from Villa - five days before the start of the season - in the culmination of a spat with owner Randy Lerner, who turned off the funding spigot having not seen better than a sixth-place finish despite a £200 million investment over the previous three seasons.
The team slipped to ninth under Gerard Houllier in 2010-11, and it's since been a battle to avoid the drop. Alex McLeish and Paul Lambert had Villa stuck in neutral from 2011-15, finishing between 15th and 17th. This season, both Tim Sherwood and Remi Garde were unable to stop the rot, with Sherwood sacked and Garde leaving after 147 days having been denied funds in the January window to try and make a run at avoiding relegation.
In recent weeks, newly installed chairman Steve Hollis has begun a radical makeover, adding ex-FA chairman David Bernstein, Mervyn King and former Villa manager and player Brian Little as an adviser. The first two may have the bigger challenge in the boardroom - turning around Villa's dire financial situation in which they must cut a £70 million wage bill to be economically viable in the Championship as well as cut pre-tax losses of a Premier League-worst £28 million in 2014-15.
The team has already said they will be reducing staff by voluntary redundancy, but that layoffs may be needed.
"The Championship is one of the hardest leagues in the world," ex-Villa goalkeeper Mark Bosnich said. "To get back up is not going to be an easy task, so Villa have got to be careful. It is a sad story but they need to get over it quickly, look forward and basically put down a plan."
That plan has yet to be finalised, adding to the unrest of the fan base, who sported signs of "Lerner Out" and "No Fight, No Pride, No Effort, No Hope" and jeered throughout last weekend's 2-1 loss to Bournemouth, their eighth on the bounce during which they've been outscored 24-3. Some sarcastically praised the team via social media after the announcement Villa will not be holding an awards dinner at season's end.
In fact, given the housecleaning awaiting Villa in terms of player personnel and the grinding nature of the 46-match Championship season in which teams sometimes play three times a week, some pundits have noted Villa could sink to League One by the end of 2016-17 before beginning their arduous climb back to the top flight.
One of the soon-to-be six teams never relegated from the Premier League, Manchester United (15-8-9) are out to sustain the momentum of their 2-1 FA Cup quarterfinal replay victory at West Ham United on Wednesday. Marcus Rashford and Marouane Fellaini scored goals 13 minutes apart in the second half, and the Red Devils endured a nervy finish after conceding on 79 minutes to book their first trip to Wembley for the FA Cup semifinals since 2004.
"I do my work, do my utmost best and everywhere I worked I have won something," said manager Louis van Gaal, who again had been assailed by critics after United's brutal 3-0 setback at Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. "I am selected by Manchester United because of that. Not because I'm a lousy trainer or manager."
With their match at Wembley against Everton now less than a fortnight away, the more immediate concern for United is erasing the four-point deficit to archrivals Manchester City for the fourth and final Champions League spot. Both teams have six matches remaining, and getting Fellaini to produce consistently during the run-in would go a long way to possibly overtaking City, and perhaps even saving van Gaal's job as rumours of ex-Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho swooping in to Old Trafford persist.
"It's always nice to score; it's good for confidence," Fellaini told United's official website. "Now we have a game on Saturday which we have to win in front of our home supporters. At a club like Manchester United, we have to win something."
Starlet Rashford has scored six goals in 11 matches across all competitions since being called up from the academy.
United are unbeaten in their last 13 (10-3-0) against Villa in all competitions since a 1-0 loss at Old Trafford on Dec. 12, 2009. That stands as Villa's only win at Old Trafford (1-4-18) since the inception of the Premier League - a span in which they've managed two goals once with United outscoring them 50-12.