Manchester United’s humiliation at Fulham’s hands last season, when Roy Hodgson’s men turned over the visitors 3-0, leaves team and supporters alike thirsty for revenge on Sunday. With former Red Mark Hughes now in charge of last season’s beaten Europa League finalists, the fixture promises a lively encounter in West London.
Indeed, Craven Cottage is no happy hunting ground for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men in recent years. Last season’s calamity, in which Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Ritchie de Laet formed a callow back three, compounded a 2-0 loss at the same ground in 2009. Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes, each sent off in that fixture, will hope for better in tomorrow’s televised fixture.
“We’ve had a topsy turvy time at Fulham – we ended up with nine men two years ago,” Ferguson recalled on Friday.
“Last season we’d gone too far with the players that had played at the back. We had a great result in Wolfsburg. Fletcher, Carrick and de Laet had done ok at Fulham until we’d lost a goal.
“When you lose a goal it becomes very difficult and we became fragmented. We’d started very well, had a couple of half chances, but after we lost the goal it become difficult.”
Ferguson’s side arrives in London with only Rooney a doubtful starter of those not on the long term injury list. The striker picked up a stomach bug following United’s win over Newcastle United last Monday.
Traditionally slow starters, Ferguson’s men face 10 winnable fixtures before the visit to Eastlands on 10 November. The Scot may need a strong run, with Chelsea’s start to the season arguably even easier.
However, with several players coming back from injury or beginning pre-season late, Ferguson’s men remain short of match fitness going into the second week of the season.
“I think everyone is fit from Monday night’s game,” added Ferguson.
“I had difficulty picking a squad for Monday night’s game in the sense of the game time players have had. Michael Owen, Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney, (Antonio) Valenica and Nani – they’ve not had the minutes yet.
“They’ve been required short of their peak or near proper match fitness. With a week’s training behind them they’ll be much better.”
“I think games brings that (match fitness) about. Wayne and Michael Owen, Michael Carrick only had an hours play before Monday. Valencia’s only had a a couple of games, Nani a couple of games. That’s not a lot in terms of the normal programme.”
Despite effectively being just two games into his pre-season, the spotlight is shining brightly on Rooney’s form, with the strikers’ last goal coming prior to an ankle injury in March. It’s the longest slump in the player’s career but with fitness questionable during the late stages of last season and the World Cup, Ferguson will hope that Rooney’s touch returns when match fitness is reached.
Whether that comes against Fulham depends on the striker’s return from a reported stomach bug.
Yet Ferguson has shown no sign of hysteria that has gripped the nation’s media in recent weeks, with one national newspaper claiming that the striker has now played more than 18 hours without a goal.
But the Scot recognises that Rooney’s lengthy spell since his last goal is affecting the player’s confidence, and the down-beat mood enveloping the player will lift when the former Evertonian is back among the goals.
“Strikers live by their goals. When they’re not scoring they think they’re never going to come, and when they’re coming they think they’re never going to finish,” added the Scot, who scored 170 league goals as a forward for Dunfermline Athletic and Rangers, among others.
Ferguson has not picked an unchanged side in more than 140 fixtures, and the Scot faces a difficult choice between deploying Rooney as a lone frontman as is customary away from home and retaining Dimitar Berbatov, who performed well against Newcastle.
Moreover, despite Scholes’ outstanding performance on Monday night Ferguson may choose to rest the midfielder and bring Carrick into the side. Ryan Giggs is also in contention if Berbatov drops to the bench once again, although the Welshman’s place is probably contingent on Rooney’s recovery, with Chicharito waiting in the wings for a first Premier League start.
New Fulham manager Hughes is without Andy Johnson, Diomansy Kamara and defender Phillipe Senderos for the visit of his former club, with ex-red Jonathan Greening set to start on the bench.
Team – 442 – Schwarzer, Pantsil, Konchesky, Hangeland, Hughes; Davies, Murphy, Etuhu, Duff; Gera, Zamora. Subs from – Subs from Stockdale, Zuberbühler, Baird, Kelly, Stoor, Riise, Dempsey, Milsom, Greening, Dikgacoi, E Johnson, Elm, Dembélé.
Referee: Peter Walton
Assistant referees: Dave Bryan & Andy Newbold
Fourth official: Lee Probert
United – WW
Fulham – L