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Page last updated at 16:03 GMT, Friday, 11 December 2009

Villa's World Cup hopefuls

Jonathan Pearce
By Jonathan Pearce
BBC football commentator

Just eight months ago Aston Villa were 10 minutes away from ending a barren spell of more than 25 years at Manchester United.

John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor's goals had given Villa a 2-1 lead and United were heading for a third league defeat on the spin for the first time since May 2001.

United's title hopes lay in the balance but then Cristiano Ronaldo got his 20th goal of the season and debutant teenager Kiko Macheda grabbed a wonderful stoppage-time winner. It was the moment the Premier League pendulum swung back United's way.

Peter Withe
Peter Withe was the hero the last time Villa beat Man Utd at Old Trafford

So this weekend Villa again go in search of their first Old Trafford success since Peter Withe scored the winner in November 1983, when Billy Joel was number one with Uptown Girl and police were still searching for kidnapped wonder horse Shergar.

Of the United side on show last April, only Michael Carrick carried hopes of playing for England in the World Cup finals - but seven of the healthy English contingent in claret and blue would have been optimistic about being on the plane to South Africa.

Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney (both missing in last season's game) are shoo-ins for South Africa, assuming nothing happens to them between now and June 2010.

The defence is 100% stronger when Ferdinand plays. Wes Brown's defensive versatility should get him among the defenders Fabio Capello is likely to take while Carrick should go as defensive midfield cover for Gareth Barry.


Manchester City's summer signing was the very heartbeat of the Villa effort at United eight months ago but how high are the chances of his former team-mates making the trip to Rustenburg for England's opener against the United States?

Capello's likely squad will have eight defenders, four central midfielders, four wide men and four strikers and all of them will have to fit in with the team plan. There is no room for luxury players.

It looked so promising for the Villa contingent last season but some of those who looked odds-on to go will be left heartbroken.

Luke Young and Nicky Shorey were once contenders as reserve full-backs. Young has retired from international football while Shorey is out of favour at Villa these days and out of contention for England.

Another full-back in Stephen Warnock deserves the chance to add to his one cap but with so few friendlies to come, it will be a gamble to include him in the 23. But it may well be one worth taking as Wayne Bridge has been found wanting as cover for Ashley Cole.

Aston Villa's Ashley Young
Young needs to find some consistency to boost his England chances

Winger Ashley Young blew full-backs away in 2008-09, winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award. He goes to Old Trafford with three goals in his last five games but for long spells he has been far less effective this time around.

With David Beckham almost certain to be picked because of what he brings to the dressing-room, Young needs a big improvement to get in. If Theo Walcott can stay fit he'll be preferred and so will Aaron Lennon.

Young will be left scrapping it out with Joe Cole and his team-mates James Milner and Stewart Downing.

Cole has the experience of five games at the 2006 World Cup in his favour but he's completed just five games since his nine-month injury lay-off and hasn't turned out for his country in 15 months. He'll need more than cameo roles for Chelsea if he's to win his England place back.

Similarly Downing just hasn't had enough football after breaking his foot in May although he has looked impressive in the three games he's played this season.

His place in the national team hasn't looked secure since he was taken off at half-time away against Andorra in September 2008. Things have moved on since then with the emergence of another of the Villa Park squad.

Where Downing is likely to miss out, Milner is fast becoming a favourite at FA headquarters. He's looked creative and comfortable in a central midfield role for his club of late, proving he can fill a number of roles for Capello, who rightly rates the 23-year-old.

Aston Villa's James Milner
Milner has emerged as a contender to make England's World Cup squad

Milner only made his full international debut in August's 2-2 draw in the Netherlands but has featured ever since. He can play wide on either flank or even cover at full-back and I think he'll get the nod.

It could be a straight choice between Agbonlahor and Emile Heskey for one of the striking positions. Rooney and Jermain Defoe are surely booked in while Michael Owen will need to score a dozen hat-tricks for United to win a place in Capello's heart.

Capello must also take two taller forwards. He likes the honest endeavour of Heskey even though the amiable 31-year-old hasn't hit double figures in four years and has netted just seven goals in the last 12 months. It's what Heskey brings to the team outside the box that matters to Capello but he has to be playing regularly for Villa to get in.

There are viable alternatives. Peter Crouch's scoring record for his country, 18 goals in 36 appearances, can't be overlooked even if many of the strikes have come against modest opposition.

Carlton Cole is improving all the time and is more mobile than the others and Darren Bent is having a fine season for his club but hasn't impressed at a higher level.

Agbonlahor has sharper pace than any of them. He's scored eight goals this season and will worry United this weekend. He hasn't done badly in his three internationals either, but he hasn't done enough to dislodge those who are ahead of him in the queue so I think Capello will pick Crouch and either Heskey or Carlton Cole.

But my thoughts won't be with any of the contenders on the pitch at Old Trafford.

The Theatre of Dreams is where the nightmare started for Dean Ashton.

I was the only commentator allowed to stay in the stadium in August 2006 to watch England train ahead of the friendly with Greece when Ashton's ankle was broken just outside the penalty box at the Stretford End.

I didn't know it at the time but the injury was to end his career. How terribly, terribly sad.

Ashton would have been on the plane to South Africa in the summer. He and Rooney would have made the perfect pair. Now he can only watch the hopefuls scrabble for places. I wish him well.

Jonathan Pearce will be at Old Trafford on Saturday to commentate on Manchester United v Aston Villa for Match of the Day, with the programme broadcast at 2230 GMT.

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see also
Injured Ashton forced to retire
11 Dec 09 |  West Ham
A career cut short
11 Dec 09 |  West Ham
Lawro's predictions
13 Dec 09 |  Football
Man Utd 0-1 Aston Villa
12 Dec 09 |  Premier League
Forest bring in full-back Shorey
24 Nov 09 |  Nottm Forest
Young retires from England scene
11 Nov 09 |  Internationals
Macheda hails dream Man Utd debut
06 Apr 09 |  Premier League
Man Utd 3-2 Aston Villa
05 Apr 09 |  Premier League

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