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Match preview: Manchester United - Aston Villa

Manchester United will be looking to close the gap on Manchester City as they continue their push for the Champions League places against Championship-bound Aston Villa at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon.

A 3-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur last weekend leaves United four points behind their local rivals in the standings with just six games remaining, meaning they cannot afford any slip-ups in the upcoming double header with Villa and Crystal Palace on Wednesday night. Louis van Gaal’s side did secure their place in the last four of the FA Cup by defeating West Ham United in their quarter-final replay on Wednesday, but the Dutchman may need to seal a top-four spot if he has any chance of remaining in the job ahead of next term.

That outcome still seems unlikely at present – United have not progressed this year despite spending heavily in the transfer window last summer – but six victories in their remaining half-dozen matches could be enough to see the 20-time champions qualify for the 2016/17 edition of Europe’s primary continental club competition and keep Van Gaal at Old Trafford.

United have had a disappointing season, but Aston Villa’s situation is far bleaker than that of their upcoming opponents: if they fail to beat the Red Devils and Norwich City take a point or all three from their crunch clash with Sunderland, Villa’s relegation to the second tier of English football will be confirmed.

It has been a truly disastrous campaign for a club who have a rich and distinguished history, with some supporters concerned that, rather than bouncing back to the top flight at the first time of asking next season, Villa could face another relegation battle in the Championship. This week’s news that the club have cancelled their annual Player of the Year event came as no surprise given how dire Villa’s performances have been for the vast majority of the campaign.

Taking everything into account, it is extremely difficult to argue a case for anything other than a comfortable Manchester United victory on Saturday afternoon. A home win to nil could therefore be a good option, although Villa’s ineptitude throughout 2015/16 means there is not a huge amount of value in simply backing the hosts to come out on top.

The first goalscorer market could thus be worth exploring. Marcus Rashford, who netted another goal in the replay with West Ham to take his tally for the season to six – an impressive return given he only made his professional debut against Midtjylland at the end of February – is one of the leading options to get on the scoresheet before anyone else on Saturday, but the relatively long odds available on Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard make the two attacking midfielders tempting alternatives. Wayne Rooney could return to the line-up after recovering from injury, so he too represents another potential choice in the goalscoring stakes.

While United have kept things tight at the back this season, they have not been the most prolific going forward. Despite Villa’s weakness, then, under 2.5 goals to be scored could be a fruitful wager.

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