January 26, 2013
History favours United in Cottagers Cup clash
|1/5||H: Swansea City||1/4||A: Norwich City|
caption:Dimitar Berbatov returns to Manchester United for the first time since leaving in August, while Ryan Giggs is expected to start at Old Trafford
The most successful club in the history of the FA Cup, Manchester United have claimed the famous trophy on 11 occasions and contributed to many a memorable final, including a dramatic last-gasp loss to Arsenal in 1979, and Eric Cantona-inspired victories over Chelsea and Liverpool in the 1990s. But the famous trophy, affectionately known as "old big ears", has not resided in the Old Trafford trophy room since 2004 - the longest FA Cup drought the club has experienced since 1977 - and fans have had little to shout about in the competition over the past nine years.
But United supporters should probably spare a thought for their Fulham counterparts. After losing to West Ham in their only FA Cup final appearance back in 1975 - Bobby Moore captained the West Londoners against his old club - the Cottagers only managed to get past the third round three times in their next 23 attempts, incidentally losing to the Red Devils when they finally reached the fifth round in 1999. The 2000s brought a little more joy but United continued to be the scourge of Fulham in the Cup, knocking them out of the competition again in 2001, 2004 and 2009. A narrow semi-final defeat to Chelsea in 2002 was the closest the Cottagers have come to emulating the achievements of Alec Stock's 1975 vintage.
Martin Jol's current crop have been struggling of late, having won just two Premier League games since October, though Fulham did show plenty of spirit to come from behind to earn a replay at Championship Blackpool in the third round, before repeating the trick to progress after extra-time at Bloomfield Road last week. The Dutchman has tasted cup success in his native Netherlands with both Roda JC and Ajax, but only once made it past the quarter-finals of the League Cup and FA Cup when at Spurs and could not have asked for a much tougher draw that away at the Premier League leaders.
Jol's opposite number has a rich pedigree in the FA Cup, with Sir Alex Ferguson boasting five winners' medals with United, the first of which - achieved with a replay victory over Crystal Palace in 1990 - has been widely credited as keeping him in a job and laying the foundations for the dynasty he has created since. Ferguson recently stated that United "want to try and have a go at this FA Cup" but the Scot has often used the competition to field some of his fringe players in recent years, with the likes of Anders Lindegaard, Alexander Buttner, Ryan Giggs and Chris Smalling likely to feature as they did in the 1-0 third-round replay victory over West Ham.
Whatever United's starting XI, it seems an uphill task awaits Fulham, who have won just once at Old Trafford in their last 21 visits and have not eliminated the Red Devils from the FA Cup since 1908. Should Ferguson's side triumph on Saturday it may be viewed as a good omen, as United have gone on to reach the FA Cup final four times after beating Fulham in earlier rounds, including the famous makeshift side that reached the 1958 final in the wake of the Munich Air Disaster, and the 1999 Treble triumph.
Manchester United player to watch - Javier Hernandez. Having been an unused substitute in the Premier League draw with Tottenham, Chicharito can be expected to feature against Fulham. Robin van Persie's sparkling form has left Hernandez battling for game time this season, but his record of eight goals from 14 starts is an envious one that shows he should not merely regarded as an impact player from the bench. His predatory instinct has certainly come to the fore in Cup competitions during his United career; Hernandez has previously netted decisive goals in Champions League games against Valencia, Marseille and Braga, while his two strikes against Ajax sealed Europa League progress last season and he bagged the winner on his first ever FA Cup appearance - at Southampton in 2011.
Fulham player to watch - Dimitar Berbatov. The Bulgarian arrived at Craven Cottage from United in August to much fanfare, having won the Premier League Golden Boot only 15 months earlier. Five goals in his first seven games seemed to justify Martin Jol's claim that Berbatov was "the biggest signing in the history of Fulham" but he has added just two goals since November. A meeting with his former club will be a major incentive for Berbatov, who scored in this fixture in three successive seasons as United comfortably beat Fulham each time. Despite being out of form, the silky striker's old team-mates recognise the threat he possesses, with Phil Jones saying this week: "It'll be great to see Berba back at Old Trafford, technically he's a fantastic player."
Key battle: Ryan Giggs vs Giorgos Karagounis
The veteran outfield players at their respective clubs, Giggs and Karagounis will do battle for midfield supremacy on Saturday, with United's 39-year-old and Fulham's 35-year-old looking to dictate the tempo of the tie. Karagounis, who scored a stunning goal to salvage a draw with Blackpool in the last round, will sit alongside Steve Sidwell at the base of the Cottagers' midfield and will be tasked with protecting a defence that has not kept a clean sheet in 12 games. Giggs, meanwhile, will be looking to exert the sort of control he demonstrated in a Man of the Match display in the victory over West Ham; continuing to defy his years, the Welshman does not glide across the turf in the same way he once did but he has become a wily craftsman in midfield, linking up play effectively from defence to attack.
Trivia: Damien Duff's strike for Fulham last August's 3-2 defeat to Manchester United was the fastest away goal ever scored at Old Trafford in the Premier League, timed at two minutes and 20 seconds.
Stats: In the past 50 years, Manchester United have only lost five of their 31 home FA Cup fourth-round matches - the most recent defeat coming against West Ham in 2001, courtesy of Fabien Barthez's famous gaffe.
Prediction: Manchester United's dominance against Fulham at Old Trafford is unlikely to abate, and the Premier League leaders should enjoy safe passage to the fifth round.