IT IS no longer about wanting to win for Manchester United. Wes Brown knows they have reached the stage where victory is now a must.
United head to Aston Villa tonight looking to avenge their first home defeat to the Midlands outfit since 1981.
More importantly, they need three points to keep pace with, or even overtake, Chelsea, depending on how the Premier League leaders fare at the same time against Everton at Goodison Park.
Alex Ferguson once famously described this period as “squeaky bum time” and Brown knows why.
“Once we get to this stage of the season it is no longer about wanting to win,” said the defender. “We have to win. We have to play well and we have to score goals.
“Recent results mean we have a lot of confidence at the moment. Hopefully we can keep it that way.”
Brown points to the explosive Carling Cup semi-final with Manchester City as the point when United really clicked into gear.
“Those two games were brilliant,” he said. “Coming off after the second leg knowing we had beaten them and earned a place at Wembley gave everyone a massive lift.” Nevertheless, a succession of comfortable victories has galvanised Ferguson’s side, erasing a goal difference advantage that Chelsea were nursing and exerting a degree of pressure on the Londoners, whose own inconsistency continues to be a drawback.
“It is a bit topsy-turvy,” admitted Brown. “We have had some good results in the last few weeks while Chelsea dropped points against Hull.
“When you look at the table now, anyone could take it, but knowing other teams have dropped points only matters if we keep winning.
“What does gives you a bit of a confidence is knowing when you go into a game, you finish by being top.”
It seems the chance of going top will be a far bigger motivational tool than blanking out the memory of a desperately disappointing performance in United’s previous tie with Villa.
“Maybe there is a sense of revenge from December,” Brown, 30, said. “But when we met them before we weren’t playing too well, which is why I feel it will be different this time.”
It was 1995 — when Alan Hansen famously delivered his “You’ll never win anything with kids” statement — that Ferguson’s team last tasted a league defeat at Villa Park.
Rarely since then have Villa been quite so competitive as now, though.
James Milner, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young have all caught the eye at various times, although, with their strengths in counter-attacking.
Not that Martin O’Neill will be content for his side to adapt a cautious approach against United.
He added: “We will be very dangerous on the counter-attack and United themselves won championships based on counter-attacking football.
“It is not a case of us hanging around our own penalty area waiting for some things to happen on the break. We might be forced back in the game but I also think we are capable of taking the game to Manchester United.”
O’Neill believes Wayne Rooney is in the best form of his career as he looks to his frugal Villa defence to shut out the United star.
Rooney has netted 21 times in the Premier League — his best tally for a season — and United have scored 61 goals to make them the division’s leading scorers.
But Villa have the best defensive record in the top flight — just 18 goals conceded in 24 games — and shut out the Red Devils at Old Trafford in December.
O’Neill said: “Rooney is in fantastic form. He is probably playing the best he has ever played at the moment, scoring goals as well, which gives you a big boost of confidence.
“He has been a real top quality player for the last four or five years.
“Has he stepped up after the loss of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo? It seems he has taken on even more responsibility and he is thriving on it.
“Yet last season, when United wanted to play him wide right or wide left to help maybe stop the opposition from playing, Rooney was the first one to volunteer.
“Now he (Ferguson) has got him playing basically as a centre-forward, either with Berbatov or on his own. He is up to the challenge and he is just a terrific footballer.”
O’Neill has been delighted with the form of Ireland star Richard Dunne, James Collins, Carlos Cuellar, Luke Young and Stephen Warnock in Villa’s defence.
He said: “It will be hard to keep Manchester United at bay but we are doing pretty well defensively.
“I think the three lads coming in before the transfer deadline in August (Collins, Dunne and Warnock) has given us a great boost.”
Striker Emile Heskey looks like being ruled out against United with a groin injury. John Carew could replace Heskey in the starting line-up.
Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are set for recalls as United. With Rio Ferdinand suspended, Nemanja Vidic has an outside chance of being involved for the first time this year.
Ferdinand yesterday withdrew his appeal against the additional one-match suspension he incurred for a “frivolous” challenge to an FA violent conduct charge for which a three-match ban was increased to four.
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