Manchester United faces a stern test at Craven Cottage on Wednesday night, but this time it is a midfielder that Sir Alex Ferguson is lacking. Two seasons ago United’s December fixture at Fulham ended in a disastrous 3-0 defeat after Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher were forced into emergency roles in United’s back four. There is no such task facing Carrick and co. on Wednesday, but Ferguson is instead without a plethora of key central midfield players for the trip south.
In the second of a London double-header this week, United aims to keep pace with rivals Manchester City at the head of the Premier League. Ferguson’s side briefly led the title race on Sunday and will return to first place in the unlikely event that the Blues slip to defeat against Stoke City, and United win at Craven Cottage. And while Ferguson will include fit-again Javier Hernández and Dimitar Berbatov in his squad, key players Anderson, Fletcher, Tom Cleverley and Nemanja Vidić miss the trip.
United won comfortably at Loftus Road on Saturday, and with Fulham’s form mixed in recent week’s Ferguson’s men will be confident of securing a first Premier League victory at the Cottage since March 2008. Indeed, Ferguson may well select an unchanged side for the fixture. But it is the heavy defeat two years ago, in which Wayne Rooney saw red and United shipped three, that Carrick remembers vividly.
“I remember the game two years ago, though not that well!” says the Geordie midfielder, who has returned to form in recent weeks.
“It was just one of those situations: we had no defenders left so me and Fletch played at centre-half. “I’d played there for two or three matches before that and we’d won, but that was probably one game too many. It wasn’t a great day for us.
“Fulham have had an up-and-down time this season, but they beat QPR 6-0 at their place and have had some other good results. We know they’re a strong team: they’re well organised and Craven Cottage is a tough place to visit, but it’s a good, old-fashioned football ground and we look forward to going there.”
Carrick will again provide the fulcrum around which Ferguson will build his central midfield. The Geordie has suffered intermittent form over the past two years, including two traumatising losses to Barcelona in the Champions League. But the 30-year-old’s revival in recent weeks has provided some confidence at a time of severely depleted midfield resources.
While United is slowly coming through the rash of injuries in recent weeks, Ferguson has once again included youngsters Larnell Cole, Ezikiel Fryers and Ben Amos in the party. Federico Macheda also traveled south with the squad, although is still likely to leave on loan after the Christmas programme. Paul Pogba was seemingly left in Manchester despite encouraging words this week about the Frenchman’s future at Old Trafford.
Patrice Evra will again captain United, having been vindicated late Tuesday night, when the Football Association handed down at eight-match ban to Luis Suarez for using abusive and racist language in United’s fixture with Liverpool in September. With the weight now off his shoulders United fans will hope for better performances from the 30-year-old, whose form has dipped in recent months.
Meanwhile, former Fulham player Chris Smalling, who has impressed since a £12 million transfer to Old Trafford in 2010, returns to his old stomping ground, grateful for the break received in professional football. Four years ago Smalling was with semi-pro Mainstone United in the Isthmian League, before transferring to Fulham.
“I see my time there as a big two years,” Smalling told ManUtd.com.
“My first year was about finding my feet and the second was about showcasing what I can do. Without Roy Hodgson giving me my chance there I wouldn’t be here so it’s a time I look upon fondly. It’ll be nice to go back and see a few of the players and play back at the Cottage.
“The players always look forward to this time of year with plenty of games. We’re used to the demands and it’s a big opportunity to pick up a lot of points – we want to get maximum points. Christmas can be a hindrance on some and can sometimes make or break you in terms of kicking on, but this is a period where we really need to kick on and show everybody we mean business.”
Meanwhile, Fulham manager Martin Jol welcomes back Bobby Zamora after the striker missed the win over Bolton Wanderers last weekend with injury. However, former Red Simon Davies will miss the game, as will Steve Sidwell, Zdenek Grygera and goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. Jol’s side has scored just 18 goals in 16 league matches this season – six in one match – highlighting the Zamora’s importance.
Despite dropping out of the Champions League, and the Reds intermittent form since defeat to City in September, United’s 39 points from 16 matches is five better that at the same point last season. Ferguson’s side has won three additional games and scored more goals to boot. Few will bet against United adding to the tally on Wednesday.
Fulham versus Manchester United, Premier League, Craven Cottage, Wednesday 21 December 2011, 8pm.
Fulham (4-4-2): Stockdale; Baird, Hangeland, Senderos, JA Riise; Dempsey, Murphy, Etuhu, Dembele; Zamora, Ruiz. Subs from: Etheridge, Kelly, Hughes, Gecov, Duff, Frei, Sa, Johnson, Briggs, Somogyi, Kasami.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Nani, Jones, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fryers, Park, Pogba, Valencia, Cole, Diouf, Giggs, Macheda, Berbatov.
- Rooney and Carrick were on target as United beat QPR 2-0 on Sunday at Loftus Road. Rooney’s strike was his 12th goal of the season, a return from 66 efforts at goal;
- Meanwhile, Carrick’s goal was his first of the Premier League season, and came from an all-action performance in which the midfielder covered more ground than any other United player with 5.78 miles;
- Despite United’s upturn in results, Ferguson’s side now has only two two players in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index‘ top twenty – Rooney and Nani;
- Despite criticisms that he is no longer the player he once was, Rio Ferdinand has done more than any other United player defensively with 57 across tackles, blocks, interceptions and clearances. That’s one every 17 minutes 59 seconds;
- Carrick is the next United player in the ranks for most frequent defensive contributions with one every 18 minutes 38 seconds;
- Clint Dempsey and Bryan Ruiz scored within two minutes of each other to seal a 2-0 win over Bolton in Fulham’s last Premier League outing;
- Fulham out-ran Bolton with 62.18 miles to 61.48 in the game, with striker Bryain Ruiz covering the most ground with 6.4 miles followed by fellow scorer Demsey with 6.24 miles;
- The pair were rewarded for a goal and an assist each in that game by moving up in the Index. Ruiz climbed 47 places and Dempsey 30;
- Dempsey’s goal was his fifth in the Premier League from 59 shots at goal, the fourth highest shots total of any player at one every 29 minutes 12 seconds.
Referee: Mark Halsey (Welwyn Garden City)
Assistants: R Ganfield, D C Richards
Fourth Official: P Walton