MANCHESTER, April 4 – Manchester United's shell-shocked stars have admitted that Sunday's Premier League clash with Aston Villa at Old Trafford has developed into a must-win game for Sir Alex Ferguson's faltering champions.
United, who held a seven-point lead over their closest challengers just three weeks ago, have seen their aura of invincibility shattered by successive defeats against Liverpool and Fulham.
Liverpool have emerged as the form team and United’s players are acutely aware that any further stumbles could undo their exemplary work earlier in the season.
With Martin O’Neill’s Villa also struggling for form, and without a league victory at Old Trafford since 1983, United midfielder Michael Carrick and goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar admit that they simply have to get back to winning ways on Sunday.
Carrick said: "We’d gone so long without a league defeat that, when it happened against Liverpool, it was a bit of a shock to the system, especially when you consider the run we had been on and how we had been playing.
"But you’re going to lose games through the season. It’s very rare you don’t. We’ve just got to bounce back — we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.
"It’s not a case of changing everything because we’ve lost a couple of matches — we’ve got to focus on doing what we do best and hopefully go on another winning run."
Van der Sar, who has now conceded six goals in his last two league games, insists that United — without the suspended trio of Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes and Nemanja Vidic and the injured Dimitar Berbatov — cannot allow themselves to be sidetracked by the costly defeats against Liverpool and Fulham.
He said: "If you put it into context, then we have lost two games in four months. Overall, that’s not a bad record, but because the emphasis has been placed on the last two games, it looks very bad.
"We are not too worried, but we do need to win the next game and the Villa fixture is a massive game for us."
Ferguson meanwhile believes that the Fulham defeat — in a match which United finished with nine men — will have served as a welcome wake-up call for a squad that may have begun to take their compliments for granted.
"Everybody likes to read good things about themselves," the Scot said. "We do, it’s a natural thing to do. So it can have an effect.
"There are a lot of young players in our dressing-room, so maybe it was a good time for us to get that defeat at Fulham in particular.
"What I’m saying is that we now have to kick on. We’ve got where we are, with a game in hand, which is a great position for us to be in.
"What we have to do now is win our next games. The challenge is always there for this club but the important thing is for the players to focus on who they are, what they’re good at and we’ll be okay."
Villa, who have slipped out of the top four in recent weeks after picking up just one point from five games, will be without the injured Emile Heskey against United.
Defender Curtis Davies admits that the trip to Old Trafford is as tough as Villa could face in their current form.
Davies said: "It’s a very big test for us, but I think it has now become even harder by the fact that they have lost their last two games. They will want to win again to keep Liverpool at arm’s length.
"But we have to be positive and can’t feel sorry for ourselves after recent results. We just have to pick ourselves up for another big game."