Less than a week into the season and already there’s pressure on United to win at Old Trafford this Saturday. With Fulham in town Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will smell the scent of victory, but after defeat to Everton on Monday few points will be counted until just after five this Saturday. There’s no doubt Ferguson’s team will be hurting from the loss at Goodison Park; the question now is whether United can get the balance right to beat an in-form Fulham at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’.
Surely it’ll be different during the opening home match of the season supporters will contend – no matter how well Martin Jol’s side played in hammering Norwich City last weekend. It has to be. After all, there are fine margins between winning and losing a Premier League title, as Ferguson and his players know to their grave cost. Three points behind after the opening game of the season, the emphasis is not only on a United victory this weekend, but a comfortable one at that.
Yet, Monday’s loss to Everton has posed plenty of questions, with a redistribution of some personnel likely in Ferguson’s team. Indeed, new signing Robin van Persie should make his full debut for the club after coming on as a late substitute at Goodison, while Ferguson has some tricky decisions to make in both midfield and defence.
The question of balance is a delicate one. Last Monday United struggled at the back – with two midfielders joining Nemanja Vidić and Patrice Evra in the back-four. The Reds also failed to turn possession into chances and opportunities into goals at the other end. For all United’s attacking resources, woeful performances by Wayne Rooney and Nani, in particular, did not help the cause in just the third defeat at Goodison Park in the past decade.
Despite this, few will expect anything other than a United victory during the opening home match of the season, no matter how well Martin Jol’s side played in hammering Norwich City last weekend.
This is an assertion that will be tested by United’s continuing problems in the back four, with Ferguson set to call on Michael Carrick in the heart of defence once again in the heart of defence, although the 70-year-old manager has suggested that left-back Patrice Evra is in the mix for the role. Rio Ferdinand, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are all out, while Jonny Evans should make the bench.
Central defender Evans joins the match-day party after overcoming an ankle injury aggrevated during United’s 4-4 draw with Everton last season. Yet, with no pre-season behind the 24-year-old defender Ferguson will be taking a large gamble if he selects the Northern Irishman.
“I need to call Bruce and Pallister!” joked Ferguson at his regular Friday press conference.
“Phil Jones started training yesterday but tomorrow is too soon for him. It’s pretty much the same as Monday night injury-wise. Alex [Büttner] will be involved tomorrow because he gives that back-up. Evra could actually play centre-back. He has done in the past. But I don’t think Alex will start tomorrow, I think he’ll be on the bench.”
Meanwhile, in attack Ferguson has a plethora of resources, with van Persie an option after the Reds failed to score on Monday despite dominating possession. On the night Rooney and Nani struggled to make any mark, although only the latter is likely to lose his place, with Ashley Young standing by to come into Ferguson’s side. Danny Welbeck may also be relegated to the bench after starting against Everton, although summer acqusition Shinji Kagawa should retain his place after impressing on his full debut for the club.
Indeed, midfielder-turned-defender Carrick says that a quartet of new signings this summer – van Persie, Kagawa, Nick Powell and Alexander Büttner – has boosted morale at Old Trafford despite the loss to Everton last week.
“When you see top players come through the door it gives everyone a big lift,” Carrick told United’s official website.
“It puts everyone in a positive mood because it means the team is moving forward, but you also know you’ve got to play well to stay in the team and that helps keep the standards high. It’s up to us to learn the strengths of the new players and for them to fit in to our system and I’m sure we’ll get better as the season goes on.
“At this stage though it’s about picking up points and we need to start doing that. Monday night was a bit of a setback, but since then we’ve just tried to stay focused and concentrate on the next game. We knew it was going to be a hard match, that wasn’t something that surprised us. It’s [defeat] happened early on in the season, a lot earlier than we hoped for and expected, so it’s important we now get a run of wins together and build up some momentum.”
Building that momentum will be no easy task against Martin Jol’s Fulham, with the Cottagers beating Norwich City 5-0 on the opening day of the season. Confidence is high in the camp despite star forward Clint Dempsey being excluded from the match-day party.
Fulham has made an official complaint to the FA about Liverpool’s intervention in Dempsey’s future, with the American believed to have asked for a move north despite no official bid having been made by the Merseysiders. It is a saga that has disrupted Fulham’s preparations for the new campaign, with Dempsey a key part of a side that finished ninth in the Premier League last season.
Jol will also be without injured trio Kerim Frei, Phillipe Senderos, and Simon Davies for the trip north. Zdenek Grygera returns to the west Londoners’ squad.
“It is not only about the Norwich’s of this world, it is also about Chelsea and Manchester United” insists Jol.
“Clint always played a good part in those games. He was always on the end of things. There are always players in football who want to move. But they keep quiet. I always hope for players to keep a low profile and wait for what will happen. This was different.
“For us it would have been better if Liverpool had followed up with a formal bid. But they didn’t, and as of now there is no formal bid on the table. It has made the situation very difficult for us. Clint’s head was turned, that is the problem. In the next couple of weeks, if it stays like now, the status quo, hopefully he will change his thoughts about us.”
Ferguson, though, will be wary of Fulham’s firepower despite Dempsey’s absence this weekend. After all, new Croatian signing Mladen Petrić scored twice against Norwich, while Damien Duff, Bryan Ruiz and Moussa Dembélé could provide goals from midfield.
“I went to see Fulham on Saturday, they played very well,” adds Ferguson
“The club has grown tremendously since Roy [Hodgson] got them to the Europa League final. The place is buzzing, full house every week, good atmosphere, their home record is terrific and they’ve got a lot of experienced players – six players over 30. It won’t be an easy game, we’re at home, we have to make an impact quickly after losing Monday night and we expect that.”
Yet, few expect anything other than a United victory, especially at Old Trafford. Ferguson’s side hasn’t lost an opening home game since Everton score three in 1992, while United has won the last nine league and cup games against Fulham at Old Trafford, scoring 23 goals in the process. The Cottagers, meanwhile, have taken the points just once in 50 years – a 3-1 victory in 2003.
Despite Fulham’s comfortable win over the Canaries, and the Reds’ loss to Everton on match-day one, Old Trafford’s faithful demand nothing less than the full three points. As it always is with the Reds.
Manchester United v Fulham – Premier League, Old Trafford – Saturday 25 August 2012, 3pm
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Carrick, Vidic, Evra; Cleverley, Scholes; Young, Rooney, Kagawa; Van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wooton, Büttner, Powell, Nani, Giggs, Anderson, Valencia, Welbeck, Berbatov, Macheda, Hernández
Fulham: (4-5-1): Schwartzer; Riether, Hangeland, Hughes, Riise; Duff, Dembele, Sidwell, Diarra, Ruiz; Petrić. Subs from: Etheridge, Somogyi, Stockdale, Baird, Kelly, Briggs, Grygera, Kacaniklic, Halliche, Kasami, Bangna, Rodallega, Trotta
Referee: K Friend
Assistants: M Mullarkey, J Flynn
Fourth Official: P Gibbs
Last 10: United – 7 | Fulham – 2 | Draw – 1
Overall: United – 45 | Fulham – 13 | Draw – 16
- Despite United’s loss to Everton on Monday there were some bright points from the game, with David de Gea putting in a great performance with seven saves in total;
- Paul Scholes and new signing Shiji Kagawa also shone in midfield – each appears in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index’s top five for passes completed in the opponent’s half from the first round of games with 56 and 50 passes respectively;
- Kagawa also covered more ground than any other player for United with 6.11 miles, ahead of the evergreen Paul Scholes with 5.68 miles;
- Overall United completed 324 passes in Everton’s half during the game, a number bettered only by neighbours Manchester City in the opening fixtures;
- Passing didn’t translate into goals though, with the Reds making ha 18 shots at goal – the second highest of any team in the opening weekend;
- Fulham fans will be delighted with a 5-0 win against Norwich in the first match of the season, with new signing Petrić contributing a brace and Alex Kacaniklic also getting on the scoresheet;
- Fulham boss Jol has completed some inspired business in the transfer market – Kacaniklic covered the most ground for the Cottagers with 6.2 miles and put in the third highest registered top speed in the Premier League with 23.05 miles per hour;
- Fulham also covered the fourth highest amount of ground in the EA Index as team en route to 61.73 miles in total.