Match Preview: Fulham vs. Manchester United

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By Richard Evans

Introduction

Manchester United travel to Craven Cottage on Saturday evening looking for a victory that would temporarily see them go ten points clear at the top of the table.

With title rivals Manchester City not in action until Sunday when they take on Liverpool, the Red Devils could pile the pressure on their neighbours by extending the lead to double figures. A victory for the Reds in West London would leave City knowing that they have to beat Liverpool to prevent the gap growing too large.

However for United to put City in this position they have to perform against a Martin Jol side that have only lost once in four games and are very difficult to beat at the Cottage.

The pitch is tight and the crowd is seemingly on top of the players; worlds away from the expansive playing surface at Old Trafford, and down the years the Reds have come unstuck on the banks of the River Thames.

In recent seasons Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have lost 2-0 and 3-0 at Craven Cottage, and have only won once, a 5-0 drubbing there last season, in their last four visits.

The two teams met as recently as last weekend in the FA Cup, when a much changed United side comfortably disposed of the Cottagers 4-1 at Old Trafford. Two goals from Javier Hernandez, and strikes from Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney saw United progress to the next round.

The Red Devils will go into Saturday’s game full of confidence having not lost in the Premier League since the middle of November when they meekly succumbed to a determined Norwich side at Carrow Road. Since that game United have won 10 out 12 in the league; a run that sees them sitting comfortably clear at the top of the table.

Three points on Saturday is vital to mount the pressure on City, but Fulham have players that have the potential to cause United problems. Everyone knows about Dimitar Berbatov’s ability (if available) and added to Bryan Ruiz’s skill and the flair of new signing Urby Emanuelson, Fulham have plenty of attacking talent. Sir Alex will be hoping that his attackers can hurt the hosts too though.

Team Selection Thoughts

David de Gea once again came in for criticism during the week after a poor Michael Carrick back pass had allowed Jay Rodriguez to nip in and give Southampton the lead. However the young Spaniard more than made amends for the part he played in the goal, making a series of fine saves that effectively won United the match. Seemingly any mistake is magnified purely because he plays for the Reds, and his good work often goes unnoticed. Sir Alex though will continue to play him if he consistently makes saves that earn United points.

Rio Ferdinand started on the bench on Wednesday night, and at times United missed his calming influence especially in the second half. He could return to the line up on Saturday to take his place alongside Nemanja Vidic who continues to impress as he works back to full match fitness. The Serbian made a number of key interceptions and blocks, most notably one from Ricky Lambert, and Sir Alex will be hoping he can keep him fit. Rafael was given a watching brief for most of the Saints game and should return for the trip to West London, while Patrice Evra will continue at left back. The Frenchman has six assists in the league already this season, and after a disappointing campaign last term by his standards, he has been much improved.

In midfield the Reds are starting to witness the ability of Shinji Kagawa who looks to be getting back towards full fitness. The Japanese international laid on the first for Rooney with a delightful through ball in midweek and if he keeps improving he will be a vital part of the team as United fight for silverware on three fronts. Tom Cleverley could return to action after missing the Southampton game, while Michael Carrick will be looking to put his mistake behind him with a dominant midfield display. If Kagawa starts on the “left” then there will only be room for one winger, with Nani and Valencia vying for the role. Ashley Young remains unavailable which is unfortunate given the fact he had been performing well on the wing.

Robin van Persie failed to equal Ronaldo’s record of scoring in six consecutive Premier League games on Wednesday night but in a rare goalless game for the Dutchman, Wayne Rooney bagged a brace instead. The pair performed well against Southampton and will be looking to continue building their partnership on Saturday evening. Javier Hernandez scored twice last weekend against Martin Jol’s men but he could be given the role of impact sub.

Opposition View

Here, at Stretford End Arising we spoke to members of Friends Of Fulham and asked their thoughts on the upcoming game and more:

Saturday’s Game

After the FA Cup thrashing it is difficult to expect a positive outcome but anytime Fulham are at home we are hopeful. United are likely hold the possession advantage with Fulham counter-attacking when possible. With that in mind and Berbatov seemingly unavailable there is a good chance Fulham will line up in a 4-4-1-1 with Rodallega up top and Ruiz sitting in behind him.

Possible team: Schwarzer; Riether, Senderos, Hangeland, Riise; Urby, Frimpong, Kara, Duff; Ruiz, Rodallega.

Fulham’s 2012-13 Season?

Underwhelming… We have been on a poor run of form, the most worrying aspects of which has been the flaky defence (normally a bedrock), our indifferent home form (normally far stronger) and the lack of fight and “fire in the belly”. There are signs that we have turned the corner, but that probably won’t translate in to a win on Saturday!

Fulham’s Player of the Season?

Sascha Riether. He’s had every single winger in his pocket this campaign. He’s nimble, tenacious, a cracking cross on him and the ability to get up and down the right flank effortlessly. Honourable mention to Giorgos Karagounis who hasn’t played too many games, but has got us out of some sticky situations and given the whole team a lift.

Martin Jol

Very divisive subject… He has pedigree, the right footballing philosophy, and an eye for good players. But there are question marks over his management style, relations with key players, and the fact that he has presided over a poor run of form etc. so the disquiet is understandable. But not to the extent that we should ditch him.

Dimitar Berbatov

Quality player. A joy to watch. Makes everything look so effortless. Great control, distribution, vision, finishing etc. Almost too good for the side, as he gets frustrated when others show that they are not of the same quality or on the same wavelength. Strengthening the midfield will give him the service he needs. Major steal for us getting him from you. However, when it’s necessary to graft and in light of our recent form, it can feel like there’s only 10 on the pitch and in comparison to past seasons a fair few of that 10 not at their best anymore, so he can be a bit frustrating.

Two Key Battles

Robin van Persie vs. Brede Hangeland

It goes without saying that van Persie will be the main threat for Fulham to deal with on Saturday, but in Hangeland they have a very capable and composed defender. Having said that van Persie will be desperate to find his scoring touch once more and Hangeland will have to be at the top of his game to subdue United’s number 20. If van Persie can link up effectively with Rooney and Kagawa it could be a long game for the Fulham captain.

Shinji Kagawa vs. Steve Sidwell

As previously mentioned, Kagawa is improving with every game and United will look to him for a creative spark. He drifts into clever positions to receive the ball, and his excellent touch and awareness allow space and time for others. Sidwell will have to keep a very close eye on Kagawa because if he allows the diminutive playmaker to find time and space, he will thread the eye of a needle or even get on the score sheet himself.

Summary

Without question Craven Cottage is a very difficult place to go and secure all three points, but Fulham have failed to fulfil their potential so far this season. United on the other hand have looked every bit potential champions, and they will feel that they have the firepower to earn victory in West London. Yes the Reds have come unstuck at Fulham down the years and it won’t be an easy game, but with the incentive of opening up a 10 point lead, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men should just about have enough to edge further clear of City. For a day at least.

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SEA’s Fulham vs. Manchester United match day thread HERE.
Share your thoughts with the Stretford End Arising forum HERE.

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