Robin van Persie scores his first goal for Manchester United against Fulham
Manchester United host Fulham on Sunday, with both sides low on confidence following early FA Cup exists and poor league form. United welcome back Rene Meulensteen, who joined the United coaching staff in 2001 and helped Sir Alex Ferguson win a number of league titles and the Champions League in 2008.
Meulensteen has had a tough start to his managerial career in England, with Fulham rock bottom and no having won a league fixture since New Years day. The visitors have lost ex-United forward Dimitar Berbatov to Monaco and have conceded 53 goals so far this term – the worst in the league. United ran out 3-1 winners earlier in the season at Fulham, with Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie getting on the scoresheet.
The home side welcome back Nemanja Vidic, who announced earlier in the week he is to leave the club at the end of the season, who is available again after being sent off against Chelsea in January, whilst David Moyes will be looking to Rooney and van Persie to start working with Juan Mata to form an impressive attacking trio. Time is running out for Manchester United, with Liverpool now ten points clear after their 5-1 hammering of Arsenal, and a win against the relegation threatened Londoners is key.
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We caught up with Kristian Balkin, who always puts together some great answers for us, on Rene Meulensteen, Dimitar Berbatov’s departure and whether or not United can actually win the European Cup!? Kristian blogs over at http://www.cottagersconfidential.com/ and you can follow him on Twitter @krisbalkin
1) So what is happening at Fulham at the moment? Are you going to get relegated?
Most likely. The simple fact is, we’re bottom of the league with a goal difference that is beyond embarrassing. We have a run of fixtures that is daunting to say the least and we possess a squad that is, by all means, devoid of confidence. Not the best mix. That said, we’ve been here before and we’ve pulled it out of the bag so there is a distant, faint hope that we can save ourselves and all will be merry again on the banks of the Thames.
As for why we’re in such a dire situation? Mismanagement, a lack of team balance, apathy. It’s a shambles, simply. Martin Jol can take a fair amount of the blame but ultimately it’s the players – of which, before January, there were too many ‘flairy’ ones, and too many ‘experienced’ ones – who haven’t performed.
2) What have you made of Rene Meulensteen so far and is he the right man to take you forward?
This one’s very much up in the air. To make us look a coherent side following the reign of Martin Jol was probably quite simple, given how bad we were. In the mess we were in, any slight improvement is noticeable. Saying that, it was clear Meulensteen was doing something right in those early, heady days. We became more potent up front and passed with something that at least resembled fluency.
A month down the line, though, it’s not all so rosy. Our defence is hilarious in its ineptitude; we leak goals like a Sunday league team and as much as I empathise with our new Head Coach and as much as I adore his ideology – attack is the best form of defence, basically – we need to become tighter at the back. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem capable of doing that, and while I wouldn’t condone his sacking, I wouldn’t mourn his loss either.
3) Where you sad to see the back of Dimitar Berbatov?
If you’d asked me this a year ago the answer would be an emphatic yes but, now, it’s a categorical no. A glorious player, of that there is no doubt, but he is not cut out for a relegation battle. He has looked lethargic and disinterested this season and to take any money from ditching him would have been a bonus. So, yes, perfectly happy to see him go.
4) Where have you struggled on the pitch this season and rhinos responsible for the decline?
We’ve pretty much struggled all over the park but you’d have to say our defence is the weakest link. We’re porous to the very end. There’s a new centre back pairing here of Brede Hangeland and Dan Burn which seems to steadied us slightly but nowhere near enough. John Heitinga has come in as well but he is no household name.
There’s no single person to blame, though Phillippe Senderos has taken a lot of flack. Most of it is fair – he has a mistake in his for every game – but I have seen worse defenders. Hangeland hasn’t exactly been in fine form either but it’s the unit, as a whole, that has aided our significant decline.
5) Who was the best manager in the past 15 years at Craven Cottage and why?
That’s an easy one: Roy Hodgson. He was never a chap that was going to encourage the most flowing of football – you can see that with England now – but he organised us to perfection. Fulham made it all the way to the Europa League final under his tutorship, defeating Juventus 4-1 along the way, so it’s clear he did something right at the Cottage. He’ll go down as a legend amongst fans and his record with us (and West Brom for that matter) speaks for itself. You may have guessed it, but we’d take him back in a heartbeat.
6) What have you made of United and in particular David Moyes so far this season? Has criticism been justified?
I’ve always liked Moyes and I think people have to appreciate he hasn’t inherited a ‘classic’ United side, in that it’s not really comparable with the title challengers around you. He also needs time to implement his transfer system – from what I’ve read, it’s very thorough – and I think the board will allow him that.
That said, however, there are certain standards that Man Utd sides need to uphold and your current form doesn’t match that, I’m afraid. I can completely understand the calls for him to go. You should be doing better. But I’d also say it’s worth giving him the time to change it around.
7) Who is the greatest player you’ve ever seen at Fulham and who is your all time hero?
I’m not old enough to have seen some of the greats to have graced the Cottage – Jonny Haynes, George Best – but I’d say, from more recent years, Louis Saha and Moussa Dembele have really, really impressed. Saha was just an immensely powerful striker that was incredibly prolific and, though you didn’t exactly see the best of him yourselves when you signed him, I’m sure you can agree he was talented.
Dembele was special in the way he adapted his game under Jol and though he isn’t exactly setting the world alight at Tottenham Hotspur – do you see a theme here? Leave Fulham and your career goes downhill – he’s a special midfielder. He plays a strange role for someone that is so capable on the ball in that now he’s more a defensive-minded midfielder who protects the back and moves the play forward. Sadly, we still haven’t come close to replacing him.
8) How will Fulham setup on Sunday? What will the team be and have you a prediction?
Well you can be guaranteed that we will set up with a massive hole in our defence so feel free to expose that. I doubt we’ll be too defensive – well, in comparison to other sides that have come to Old Trafford this season – so while you’ll see more of the ball, we won’t be afraid to use it progressively when we’ve got it.
In terms of formation, we’ll probably line up in a 4-3-3, consisting of: Stekelenburg; Richardson, Hangeland, Heitinga, Riether; Kvist; Parker, Holtby; Kacaniklic, Dejagah; Mitroglou.
I’ve got to remain optimistic because it’s the only way to remain sane: Man Utd 0-1 Fulham.
9) If you could take one United player to Fulham from this season, who would it be and why?
Now you’ve got him, it’d have to be Juan Mata. He is such a gifted player; I still can’t believe Chelsea let you have him. Sublime on the ball and hugely creative, he’s just the player we need.
10) What’s more likely in your opinion; Fulham staying up, or David Moyes lifting the European Cup!?
Fulham staying up, but I’m a little biased. You could still easily win a cup under Moyes and, if you stick by him, there’s a chance it could be the Champions League.