AUTHOR: – Doron
Manchester United have the chance to go 10 points clear of Arsenal who play on Sunday, if they beat Fulham tomorrow. Confidence is sky high after a mid-week Champions League win at Chelsea, but their own neighbours Fulham, lead by former Red Mark Hughes, will have other ideas as they try to reach the heights of 7th spot.
The job Mark Hughes has done at Fulham has somewhat gone under the radar. Yes, from 7th place downwards the league is tight but given that for much of this year Fulham have struggled with injuries – particularly upfront, the fact they’re 10th and a win away from 7th is remarkable. Last year Fulham ended up 12th with 46 points – they’re only 8 points behind that total with 7 games left to play, it’s not inconceivable that they’ll hit the 50 point mark either. The transformation has come at both ends of the pitch – having had a negative goal difference last year, Fulham are scoring more and conceding less this year – at present they have a goal difference of +3. If it wasn’t for such a poor away record, Fulham could be even higher up the table – they’re the only side to have won just 1 away game this year (everyone else has won at least 2) – only Wolves have been worse on their travels.
Fulham, now they have their strikers fit are able to mix-up how they play. Dembele offers excellent versatility in not looking out place when asked to play out wide – this has allowed Fulham to play a 4-5-1 when defending but a 4-4-2 when attacking. The return of Bobby Zamora gives their attack a focal point and indeed he has scored 3 goals in his last 3 Premier League appearances – two coming in the 3-0 win over Blackpool last weekend. Fulham’s midfield will provide tough opposition – Danny Murphy’s form has been excellent in this twilight period of his career. Much like Scholes, he sits a bit deeper than he once did and much of Fulham’s best play comes through him. In my opinion, the star man though is Clint Dempsey. This is his 5th year at Fulham and already it’s his highest scoring – 10 in the league with 11 overall. He’s a good box-to-box player with an excellent engine and passing range.
The aim for Fulham is of course survival given how tight the league is. Their form at the moment is giving them a great chance – despite being bang-average in taking 9 points from the last 18 available, it is importantly better than a lot of the teams around them. Away from home though, Fulham’s form has been somewhat blotchy – 3 points from their last 6 away games is one of the worst records in the league. Oddly, Fulham haven’t lost a game away from home by more than 1 goal all season. Their 8 games drawn away is the joint highest total in the league – with United. Their away form is easy to pick apart – they don’t score enough (13 goals is the third lowest total) but they’re hard to score against (17 conceded is the second lowest total).
The Fulham squad is nearly fully fit – Senderos is a long-term absentee whilst Damien Duff is their only doubt with a sore Achilles. Aaron Hughes is a welcome return to the squad having had a head injury.
Fulham’s record at Old Trafford isn’t good. In 9 Premier League meetings, United have won 8, losing just one back in 2003/04. On average United hit 3 past Fulham with the London club scoring one in reply. Last year’s meeting ended 3-0 to United with two goals from Rooney and one from Berbatov. Incredibly, Fulham are the only team to have not conceded from a penalty this year (Nani missed one in the draw at Craven Cottage earlier in the season). They also have been shown the fewest number of yellow cards and are the only team not to have had a man sent off.
Enough on Fulham…onto United and my predicted line up:
The injury crisis of past weeks is easing. Brown, O’Shea and Anderson (fresh from 2 goals for the Reserves last night) are all available for selection again. Definitely missing out on this game are: Lindegaard, Hargreaves, Rafael and Fletcher – with Evans and Rooney both suspended.
I’ve gone for a 4-4-2 – the preferred formation for home games. Fergie hinted in his press conference today that there will be quite a few changed from the side that beat Chelsea on Wednesday given that the return game is only 3 days later on Tuesday and that’s followed up next weekend with an FA Cup semi-final against City. With that in mind, I’ve picked Kuszczak to start in goal given Edwin appeared to be uneasy at times on Wednesday night with a minor groin injury. Ferdinand’s return midweek was a huge boost and bonus but it’s now important to keep him fresh so in-front of Tomasz, Smalling may return against his former club to partner Vidic. Evra’s form has been a bit patchy so a weekend off for him would be ideal with Fabio hungry for more games. At right back it’s between the fit again Brown and O’Shea – I’ve plumped for O’Shea.
The midfield is somewhat tougher to pick. Scholes is back from suspension and after missing out at Chelsea, he should start. Carrick is the in-form central midfielder and so I wouldn’t drop him. Anderson is available but it would be a surprise to see him start after he played 45 minutes for the Reserves last night. Gibson too may feel he deserves another start after impressing at West Ham. Nani, having had some rest after carrying the wide-burden for much of this year should return and Valencia who’s come back so strong from his injury should keep his place – saving Giggs and Park for the Chelsea game. With Rooney suspended, Berbatov should come in for an overdue start – Chicharito is likely to start again on Tuesday so forgotten man, Michael Owen could be handed a rare start.
United remain top with a lead of 7 points now. Last weekend they came from behind to win at West Ham and saw Arsenal only manage a draw at home to Blackburn. This weekend, Arsenal are at Blackpool on the Sunday and could find themselves 10 points behind United at kick off, but with two games in hand.
Recent form shows United top of the form league with 12 points taken from a possible 18 in the last six games. At home, United have been almost unstoppable, with 14 games won out of 15. Their home record is the best in the league – they are the highest scorers with 40 goals and have the tightest defence with only 9 conceded. This match therefore pits the team with the best home run against one of the worst away sides.
In Dimitar Berbatov United have the league’s top goalscorer (20 goals) as well as the 5th and 6th top scorers (Chicharito with 11 and Rooney with 10), whilst Nani is the league’s top assister (16 assists; Rooney is joint 2nd with 11). It’s now over a year since an opposition player has scored a first half goal in the league at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, Chicharito has scored his 11 league goals from just 15 efforts on target.
Form appears to be coming at the right time for United, whilst confidence and belief is as high as ever. Players are returning from injuries and despite a much rotated line-up expected I still think United should be able to beat Fulham who do not travel well. Therefore I predict a 4-1 win for the Reds.
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