Sir Alex Ferguson will turn to two generations of Pauls, Pogba and Scholes, as Manchester United host Fulham at Old Trafford on Monday night. The United manager, fresh from ratcheting up a war of words with rivals Manchester City this week, will use the pair, young and old, as the Reds look to kick on in the Premier League title race.
Scholes, who has been instrumental in United’s outstanding recent domestic form, is likely to start against Martin Jol’s mid-table visitors. Pogba, meanwhile, is set to take part in yet another fixture as Ferguson continues his recent quest to ensure the young Frenchman stays at Old Trafford beyond the summer.
After City’s draw at Stoke City on Saturday, United, with a game in hand on Roberto Mancini’s outfit, can regain the Premier League lead with a result on Monday night. But Ferguson will want far more from the home tie – the opportunity to stretch United’s lead to three points and erode City’s goal difference advantage is on the horizon.
The Blues’ draw at Stoke, where the hosts’ physical approach rattled Mancini’s side, has increased the pressure at Eastlands – a fact Ferguson is sure to exploit in the coming weeks. Indeed, Ferguson’s decision to ponder aloud, Friday, whether bringing Carlos Tevez back into the light blue fold is a sign of “desperation” says much. Just as his side has eroded City’s confidence on the pitch, so the 70-year-old Scot has spotted more than a little weakness in his managerial rival.
Ferguson will have an almost fully fit squad for a tie that United almost always wins, although it is the Reds’ form at Old Trafford – both domestic and European – that has been patchy this season. Only Nani is still absent of the more recent injury concerns, while Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Fabio da Silva took part in United reserves’ 3-1 victory over Aston Villa on Wednesday night. Pogba played an hour of that tie, and the quintet is likely to play some part in the matchday squad.
“We took Paul off as he will be involved on Monday,” Ferguson confirmed of the 19-year-old French midfielder, who is yet to sign a new contract with the club.
“We want him to stay because we think he’s going to be a fantastic Manchester United player. We hope that’s the case. Jones and Smalling have been in and out with injuries and illness. Cleverley, Pogba and Fabio had bits of games. We’re only waiting on Nani and Michael Owen now and expect both to start training with us next week.”
Long-term injury absentees Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidić are not expected to return to Ferguson’s squad before the season’s end. But it is to Scholes that Ferguson has turned during the second half the season, with Anderson and Cleverley missing most of the campaign. The 37-year-old midfielder’s partnership with Michael Carrick has ensured not only that United kept in touch with City at the head of the Premier League, but surpassed the Blues in the past week.
While Carrick has played more than 19 domestic matches without a break, it is Scholes who has underpinned United’s central midfield creativity at a time when the Reds looks particularly weak in that area.
“He can dictate the tempo of games very well and the rhythm of our game,” added Ferguson of Scholes, with the flame-haired midfielder likely to stay at Old Trafford for at least another season.
“He has the experience which helps him do that. He has a terrific football brain. The reason he wanted to retire was because he wanted to play 50 games, not 25, he didn’t think that was enough. I said to him at the time he would play 25 games for me no problem, but he didn’t want that. Maybe he felt that was maybe me not giving him enough appreciation.
“What I was trying to do was look at it in a sensible way and think what do you get out of a 37-year-old? How many games can you get out of him? The way we control Ryan Giggs [in terms of games he plays] – he’s different from the rest and we’re treating Paul Scholes exactly the same now. There will be games where we maybe leave him out, but we also know the games he can play in.”
Meanwhile, Fulham arrive having been thumped by Swansea City last weekend, but lie a comfortable 13 points clear of the relegation zone under Jol’s stewardship. Orlando Sa, Steve Sidwell and Zdenek Grygera will not be involved at Old Trafford, but Jol has no further injury concerns for a tie that the west Londoners have not won since 2003. Indeed, Fulham has avoided defeat at Old Trafford just once in the past 49 years.
Jol has built a side with plenty of attacking options: Russian Pavel Pogrebnyak has excelled since joining the Cottagers in January, scoring five in as many games, while Clint Dempsey, Bryan Ruiz and Moussa Dembélé offer firepower from midfield. It is an attacking outfit that will concern United’s back-four, but has struggled to keep clean sheets in recent weeks.
And Jol has no regrets about not joining United eight years ago, when Ferguson mulled appointing the Dutchman as his assistant, before turning to Carlos Quiroz for a second time.
“At that time I met him only to have a conversation with him about everything,” added Jol.
“We talked football – they played Real Madrid with the “big” Ronaldo – so it was nice. Later he said about the assistant manager post, but I remember his assistant Carlos Queiroz went to Spain to Real Madrid. He was sacked so there was always a possibility for him to take him back and that is what he did. I think that was good because I don’t think I am the best assistant in the world.”
Ferguson’s side won 5-0 at Craven Cottage in December, a result that mirrors recent games between the two sides. Fulham has conceded 15 goals over the last three fixtures at Old Trafford, and while three points is the first priority, the opportunity to eliminate City’s potential goal-difference advantage will not be lost on United’s players.
“Every game is must-win now,” concluded Ferguson. “That is no issue for me. I have been used to that for years. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going.”
Manchester United versus Fulham, Premier League, Old Trafford , 26 March 2012, 8pm.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Fabio, Smalling, Jones, Giggs, Park, Cleverley, Pogba, Hernández, Berbatov.
Fulham (4-5-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, Hangeland, Senderos, JA Riise; Ruiz, Diarra, Dembele, Dempsey; Pogrebniak, Johnson. subs from: Stockdale, Baird, Hughes, Murphy, Duff, Etuhu, Frei.
Referee: Michael Oliver (Northumberland)
Assistants: P Kirkup, M Mullarkey
Fourth Official: H Webb