Manchester United face Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday, a fixture which, on recent form, they are expected to win convincingly. The last time that these teams met in the Premier League, at Craven Cottage, the defending champions advanced to a three-goal lead without reply after barely 20 minutes and held that scoreline until the end of the game.
That was a match where Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones started and starred in midfield, though it would be a surprise to see David Moyes retain the same selection here. Cleverley had perhaps his most disappointing outing of a difficult season in the defeat against Stoke City last week yet may not make way for Darren Fletcher, judging by Moyes’ postmatch statements. The manager professed himself happy with how his team had played, considering misfortune to be the main reason for their defeat, and so the Tom Cleverley-Michael Carrick axis should remain in central midfield.
Jones may join Jonny Evans in central defence, a partnership that could well be the club's first choice for years to come -- a certainty all the greater given Nemanja Vidic’s confirmation that he will leave Old Trafford at the end of the season, after eight successful years.
The match against Fulham is one that Manchester United should approach positively, for the most pragmatic of reasons, which is to say goal difference. The home team lie seventh in the Premier League on 40 points, and the two teams immediately ahead of them are Tottenham Hotspur, on 44 points with a goal difference of minus-1, and Everton, on 45 points with a goal difference of plus-12. Manchester United’s goal difference is plus-10, a figure which they should be looking to increase by a couple of goals against the division’s worst defence. Fulham, who have lost their last four Premier League games, have a goal difference of minus-31 and have conceded 53 times, facing an attack that may feature Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie.
However, the home side cannot be complacent. Fulham have new attacking threats of their own, the most potent probably Kostas Mitroglou, whom Manchester United may be relieved not to face against Olympiakos in the Champions League. Mitroglou arrived in the January transfer window, along with Johnny Heitinga and Manchester United loanee Larnell Cole, and will likely line up next to Darren Bent, a finisher of proven Premier League pedigree. The pair will be supplied by Lewis Holtby, who has joined from Tottenham Hotspur until the end of the season. Holtby has suffered from his parent club’s frenzied recruitment of central midfielders, but he remains an impressive performer who could pose a series of problems if not marshalled carefully. Behind Holtby and Mitroglou, new signing William Kvist may again form part of an obdurate midfield three with Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker after they kept Southampton at bay for a considerable period at Craven Cottage last week.
Southampton eventually prevailed 3-0 in that match, the decisive strikes arriving via swift passing among the forwards, an attack down the right flank and a counterattack. Manchester United’s right flank, particularly when it features Antonio Valencia and the overlapping Rafael, has been a source of some joy this season, which bodes well for the home side. On the left, it might be wise to reintroduce Adnan Januzaj, who will produce the unpredictability of movement and passing to pull Fulham’s defence out of position. His inclusion would also have the added benefit of keeping the ball out of the middle, an area that Fulham may wish to congest with their extra man to negate Manchester United’s speed down the wings.
This is a game where Fulham’s greatest asset will probably be their manager, Rene Meulensteen, who returns to Old Trafford after his departure last summer. Meulensteen spent two spells at Manchester United between 2001 and 2013, a period interrupted only by a year at Brondby, as coach of the youth team, the reserves and the first team.
In that last capacity, working alongside Sir Alex Ferguson, he helped guide the team to, among other things, three Premier League titles and one Champions League. He may feel a little sentimental during his reunion on Sunday, and is likely to receive a warm reception from the home support, but he also has detailed knowledge of many of his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. Manchester United should prevail by two goals or so, but they should face a particularly well-prepared side, and so patience must be their watchword.