Complacency. The amour-propre that comes so inevitably with easy success; the original sin of man. Yet, it it surely with conceit in mind that Sir Alex Ferguson dispatches his men south this Saturday – Manchester United seeking a 10 point lead in the Premier League and a second successive victory over Fulham.
After all, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men dispatched the Cottagers from the FA Cup last weekend with such ease that the lack of a double-figure score was not only disappointing, but criminally wasteful. And yet victory in west London will hand Ferguson’s side a 10 point lead ahead of Manchester City’s clash with Liverpool on Sunday.
It appears to be easy, so easy.
There is plenty of confidence in the Old Trafford camp, yes, but can Ferguson ensure that his side does not lapse into the dogmatic lethargy that enveloped the Reds’ against Southampton at Old Trafford in midweek?
While publicly the Scot blamed the pitch for United’s performance on Wednesday, there is little doubt that behind the scenes Ferguson will have impressed on his men the need for concentration with the title now in reach.
“Wednesday was important for us and we really dug in defensively,” said Sir Alex on Friday.
“We blocked shots and cleared headers. I was impressed with that but we were a bit lucky to win the game. The first half, we could have been five up at half-time, but a one-goal lead isn’t enough.
“We just make it hard for our fans and that’s the sadistic nature of our team. Some games this season we’ve got into comfortable positions and not driven nails into it. It is frustrating because they are capable of that.
“It could go to goal difference. That’s the issue and at the moment we’re only two goals better off than Manchester City and that can be overturned in one game and we’ve had opportunities to be better.”
Meanwhile, Martin Jol’s men have gained some confidence from victory over West Ham United in midweek despite the chastening experience at Old Trafford last Saturday. Three goals and an eight point margin over the bottom three leaves Jol’s side facing up, and not down, with 14 games to go.
“Fulham got a fantastic result midweek and we hope we can navigate this trip – every result is important,” said Ferguson.
“Fulham’s home record is very good and has been for a few years. They’re one of the few clubs that get full houses every year. I don’t think the pitch is as tight as people make out – the size is good but it’s the tightness around it that make it feel small. There’s always a good atmosphere and that’s important.”
Ferguson’s squad travels south in good health, with defender Jonny Evans added to the match party after the Irishman recovered from injury. Only Ashley Young remains on the sidelines from Ferguson’s first team, with the former Aston Villa winger having featured just 16 times this season.
Meanwhile, defender Rio Ferdinand returns to the side. The veteran replaced Chris Smalling during a difficult second half against Southampton on Wednesday night as United struggled to a 2-1 victory.
“We’re quite healthy in terms of the players available,” Sir Alex adds.
“Young’s the one that’s still not available. Hopefully Jonny trains today, which would give us another defender. That’s good news. I’ll make one or two changes tomorrow. Rio Ferdinand will play. Definitely.”
Elsewhere, Ferguson is likely to recall Tom Cleverley alongside Michael Carrick in midfield, while Antonio Valencia, Shinji Kagawa and Nani fight it out for two places in the United midfield. Javier Hernández missed Wednesday’s match with a hip injury, but could make the bench on Saturday.
Ferguson will enjoy holding plenty of options against Jol’s side in London. After all, while Fulham proffered the meekest of opponents at Old Trafford a week ago, the Cottagers boast a strong home record in recent seasons.
“At home, Fulham are a different team,” said striker Wayne Rooney.
“It’s always a difficult game there. It’s a smaller pitch and a compact stadium. That suits them. They’ve got players who can take the ball between the lines because the pitch isn’t as big and then create chances. They are down near the bottom so they will be fighting to get one or three points. We will need to make sure we are at our best to beat them.”
Meanwhile, the hosts will be without ex-Reds Kieran Richardson and Dimitar Berbatov. The Bulgarian pulled a hamstring in midweek, while Simon Davies, Karim Frei and Mahamadou Diarra are also out. AC Milan loanee Urby Emanuelson could make his Fulham début.
And whatever the selection Fulham can hardly perform worse than at Old Trafford in the Cup, where luck and United’s poor judgement in front of goal saved Jol from a record defeat.
“It was still 1-0 at half-time so we were still in it, but we came out and they scored two early goals and the game was finished,” admits the Dutchman.
“Luckily enough, they only scored a fourth goal because it could have been one of those days when they scored six or seven. But it’s a one-off game. For us the most important thing is the league.”
Yet, history points United’s way – even if Fulham did beat an under-strength Reds at Craven Cottage in 2009. United has won six and drawn one of the past seven matches against Fulham in all competitions despite that loss, while the west London side has secured just one victory in the past 23 meetings between these sides.
And should the game run to form then that 10 point lead is United’s at least until Sunday. If complacency doesn’t kick in first that is.
Fulham v Manchester United – Premier League, Craven Cottage – 2 February 2013, 5.30pm
Fulham (4-5-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Senderos, Hangeland, Riise; Ruiz, Sidwell, Frimpong, Karagounis, Duff; Rodallega. Subs from: Etheridge, Baird, Hughes, Davies, Dejagah, Petric, Somogyi, Kasami, Kacaniklic, Emanuelson
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidić, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Jones, Smalling, Büttner, Scholes, Giggs, Anderson, Nani, Welbeck, Hernández
Referee: Kevin Friend
Assistants: S Ledger, S Burt
Fourth official: M Oliver
Head to Head
Last 10: United 8, Fulham 1, Draw 1
Overall: United 47, Fulham 14, Draw 18
- Fulham celebrated a fine week, in which owner Mohammed Al Fayed wrote off the club’s debts and Martin Jol guided his team to victory over West Ham United ;
- Former Red Dimitar Berbatov scored against the Hammers – his seventh goal in the Premier League this season from 48 shots with 58.3% on target;
- Berbatov has completed a pass in the opposition half 492 times this season – the 17th highest overall in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index and the second highest by a striker;
- Hugo Rodallega has struggled for Premier League goals this season, with his strike against West Ham just his second from 39 efforts at goal;
- At the other end of the pitch Mark Schwarzer has been the joint third busiest goalkeeper in the Premier League this season, making 126 saves, and averaging one every 16 minutes;
- Wayne Rooney scored his sixth and seventh Premier League goals of the season against Southampton, which have come at a rate of one every seven shots – with 67.3 per cent of his shots on target;
- Rooney has also contributed seven assists this season, and is the fifth-ranked striker in the Index for passes completed in the opposition half;
- Patrice Evra is enjoying one of his finest season’s for United and he has completed 462 passes in the opposition half this season, with only Leighton Baines completing more among league’s defenders.