Aston Villa's encouraging away form will give Martin O'Neill hope when he takes his team to Old Trafford to face Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup next month.

It will be the third time in five seasons that the two clubs have met at this stage of the competition but Villa have not defeated United in the FA Cup since the 1957 final.

But whichever way Villa manager O'Neill wants to look at the match, he knows that one man will dominate the pre-match hype: Henrik Larsson.

When O'Neill was the manager of Celtic, Larsson was his main goalscorer. There was even talk that Larsson, the former Sweden international striker, would be joining Villa this season but he has instead joined United on loan from Swedish club Helsingborg.

Villa will play United three times in a month and Larsson will probably make his home debut in the FA Cup tie in early January.

"There’s always something special about the third round," O'Neill said. "On this occasion we’ve drawn the Premiership leaders and it is fair to say the draw could have been kinder to us.

"But our approach will be positive and I’m confident we can go up to Old Trafford and give a good account of ourselves with a view to progressing further in the competition.

"We’ve done well away from home this season — been beaten only once so far in the Premiership — but we’ll need to produce something special up at Old Trafford to progress."

Villa and United will meet in the Premiership at Villa Park on December 23, then in the FA Cup on January 6, and then at Old Trafford in the Premiership on January 13. However, Larsson will not join United until January 1.

"He went to Barcelona [from Celtic] and his only gripe was he didn’t play regularly enough," O'Neill said. "But you are talking about some really great players keeping him out of the team.

"When Henrik got into the side, he scored his share of goals and he turned the Champions League final [against Arsenal] when he came on.

"All natural finishers miss chances but in the penalty area he is as brave as a lion and, when balls are played in the box, he has a great instinct. I can see Sir Alex Ferguson’s viewpoint and why he has signed him. He is looking for a quality players to step in.

"I am sure Saha and Rooney are the main people — but I know Henrik will try to force his way into the side. He has proved himself. With the number of games Manchester United are going to be involved in, Sir Alex needs something else."

Villa can, at this moment, only dream of signing such quality players. The transfer window is sure to spark a month of intense activity on the part of O'Neill but there is still a perception that the Villa manager will want to conduct the better part of his business next summer.

Randy Lerner, the Villa chairman, has now seen for himself that Villa are a work in progress and are in need of new players.

"If you want to make a real fist of the job here — and my utter belief is Randy Lerner wants to do precisely that — then you know you have to improve the squad and that still stands," said O'Neill.

"I am not going into details of what we have spoken about but I do genuinely think the owner will want to get things right and do things right by the club."

Striker Juan Pablo Angel believes Villa have been handed the toughest draw they could have had in the third round.

"It is a difficult one but if you want to do something in this competition you have to play against the big clubs at some point," he said.

"They are certainly going to be up for it because it is the most important cup in this country with its history and everything. But we have to go there and give it a good go and hopefully get something out of it."

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