Another FA Cup tie; another fixture on live TV. Such is the appeal of the world’s most popular club that it is the 37th occasion in a row that Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have been selected by the nation’s broadcasters to front Cup coverage – a run that dates back to January 2005.
Saturday evening brings Fulham to Old Trafford, and with Martin Jol’s team comes a former Red – striker Dimitar Berbatov. There will hardly be a dry eye in the house. Except, of course, for those Reds who didn’t take to the Bulgarian during four years in Manchester.
Jol’s side arrives under pressure in the Premier Leauge, although Berbatov has already become a popular figure at Craven Cottage, scoring seven goals in 20 appearances to date. Now just five points off the relegation zone, the Cup represents a distraction for the Londonders – welcome, or not. Indeed, Jol may make rotate his squad for the trip north; there are certainly greater priorities in west London.
The same could be said of Ferguson’s side too, of course, although there appears to be a renewed appetite to secure a 12th FA Cup this season after almost a decade without lifting the old trophy. Replay victory over West Ham United at Old Trafford in the third round has afforded the Reds another home tie and an excellent opportunity to progress.
That only Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have secured the FA Cup among the current squad says much, not only for United’s priorities in the past decade, but a series of tough draws against Premier League opposition. The hat has been no kinder in the current season, then, but there is perhaps a renewed focus on the 150-year-old tournament.
“The boss has given a big message this season – he really wants to win the FA Cup,” defender Patrice Evra told United Review.
“He really wants it and so do we. It is the only trophy that I have not won at Manchester United. That seems impossible given that I am now in my seventh year here. The FA Cup means so much and, one day, I hope I will win it. Hopefully this year.”
The Scot may still use the tie to rest key players, with the double-header against Real Madrid in the Champions League coming up next month, but Ferguson’s should be a strong side at Old Trafford on Saturday night.
“We had a good week training in Qatar and it was a great time to go there – we couldn’t have picked a better moment actually when you consider the weather we’ve had here,” said Ferguson.
“So it’s worked out very well for us and hopefully we get the benefit from that. It was always the plan at some stage to do that this January. It couldn’t have worked out better for us.
“Jonny Evans and Ashley Young are still not 100% fit. Ashley Young is not far away. He trained a bit in Qatar. Jonny is just taking a bit longer than we thought. But he did a bit of training in Qatar. The bonus for us, of course, is that Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are both back.”
Ferguson may opt to rest 22-goal Robin van Persie, although Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa, Javier Hernández and Nani could all do with minutes against the Cottagers. While veteran Rio Ferdinand is likely to be rested, with a match against Southampton in the Premier League on Wednesday evening.
Under-fire goalkeeper David de Gea may start despite Anders Lindegaard’s appearance in the third round replay against West Ham. On Friday Ferguson labelled critics of the young Spainiard “idiots,” with Alan Hansen and Gary Neville among a plethora of high-profile pundits to jump on a very public bandwagon.
Saturday’s will be a another test for the 22-year-old ‘keeper, who has grown in confidence this season, but – as evidenced against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend – can still struggle under the high ball. Fortunate, then, that Fulham’s is rarely a direct approach.
Yet, all eyes will be on Berbatov, who scored 56 goals in 149 appearances during four largely frustrating years in Manchester. Acquired for more than £30 million, Berbatov won many friends with a sublime first touch and moments of unrivalled skill, but drew ire for a seemingly complacent attitude and an inability to deliver on the biggest occasions.
Despite the perceived low return on United’s heavy investment Ferguson remains supportive of the 31-year-old Bulgarian, who moved south for around £2 million last summer.
“I don’t think Dimitar was a failure here,” said Ferguson. “Some people like to see players run through brick walls all the time. Dimitar is not that type of player, but he is very talented player and he had a decent goalscoring record here.
“The problem for him here was the way we wanted to play and the selections I had to make. When you have choices you hope to make the right one. Javier Hernández had a fantastic first season with us and as time went on he became a more regular player than Dimitar.”
Berabtov will start despite Fulham’s recent troubles in the Premier League, which ensure Wednesday’s fixture with West Ham remains a priority. Meanwhile, former Red Kieran Richardson misses the game against his old club with a calf injury, while winger Kerim Frei and midfielder Mahamadou Diarra did not travel.
The visitors predicament means that Ferguson’s side remains strong favourites for the tie. After all, United has beaten Fulham on 46 of the 78 occasions these two side have met, including a 3-2 victory in the Premier League last August. In eight previous FA Cup fixtures between the clubs, United has triumphed on seven occasions, including a 4-0 victory at Craven Cottage in 2009.
“We haven’t done as well in the FA Cup for a few years now,” admits Ferguson. “It’s a cup which has fantastic appeal given our record in it. We have benefit of the home draw. We’ll take that any time. It’s going to be a challenge for us but we would play anyone at the moment.”
That statement may be disingenuous given United’s tough draws over the past five years, but supporters will care little so long as United remains in the fifth round draw on Saturday evening.
Manchester United v Fulham – FA Cup, Old Trafford – 5.30pm 26 January 2013
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Smalling, Büttner; Anderson, Cleverley; Nani, Rooney, Kagawa; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Ferdinand, Vidić, Evra, Scholes, Carrick, Powell, Valencia, Giggs, Welbeck, van Persie
Fulham (4-5-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Hangeland, Hughes, Briggs; Dejagah, Ruiz, Sidwell, Karagounis, Duff; Berbatov. Subs from: Etheridge, Senderos, Baird, Kacaniklic, Petric, Rodallega
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistant Referees: David Bryan, Peter Bankes
Fourth Official: Michael Jones
Head to Head
Last 10: United 7, Fulham 2, Draw 1
Overall: United 46, Fulham 14, Draw 18