A few belated thoughts an hour or so before we take on the team Arsene Wenger’s termed the ‘untouchables’ this morning. Sady, since our famous 2003 win at Old Trafford, we’ve never really come close to giving Manchester United a bloody nose. And, although we’ve assembled probably the best side that has represented Fulham since those halcyon days, I don’t expect us to manage it tonight.
For one thing, United’s defence is impregnable. No Fulham fan will need introducing to quite brilliant Edwin van der Sar in their goal. I’m still in awe of the fact that I got to watch one of the world’s best goalkeepers keep goal for little old Fulham for four years. The fact that he’s still going strong now he’s well into his 30s is a testament to the big Dutchman’s professionalism. He might have been disappointed by the way in which the Fulham project derailed post-Tigana but he never let that show in his performances. That’s why he gets a standing ovation when he comes back to the Cottage.
Sir Alex Ferguson seems to have built a back four to rival the one that had Bruce and Pallister at it’s heart when they emerged out of the wildnerness to win the inagural Premier League title in 1992-93. Rio Ferdinand has matured into probably England’s best centre back in recent years – although I wish he’d have the confidence to venture out from the back with the ball a bit more – but I still feel that Nemanja Vidic, who has been exceptional since a sticky start after coming over from Serbia, is vastly underrated. Patrice Evra might be the best left-back in the league and the emergence of Rafael and Fabio suggests that full-back positions will be covered for many years to come.
How we counter United’s dominance of possession – which is to be expected – to cut off the service to their creative players (it really doesn’t matter who lines up in attack for United) – will determine just how disappointing an evening it is likely to be. We can’t afford to show United too much respect. We have the quality to unlock the best defences in the league and we’ve shown it already this season. I don’t really think Roy Hodgson sets us out to be negative away from home – our players just have comprehensive instructions and a shape to keep.
If we play as poorly as we did at Swansea on Saturday, then Mark Schwarzer will be very busy indeed. The pleasing thing about this game is that we should be back to something approaching our strongest line-up. I’m afraid Freddie Stoor didn’t impress me again at the weekend and John Pantsil simply has to return. Pantsil does look like he could make a dreadful mistake at any moment but his defensive play has come on leaps and bounds from his West Ham days and aside from a forgettable first half at Upton Park I can’t think of an ocassion when he’s let us down.
Hopefully, Olivier Dacourt will have had a few more days to recover some sharpness in central midfield alongside Danny Murphy. I’ve been really impressive the French veteran so far – he’s much more than just a ball winner: some of his vision and passing has been outstanding. He has looked absolutely shattered when he has been substituted in recent games, though, so there could be more to come from him when he reaches full fitness. I’m excited about seeing our other loan signing Giles Barnes at some point, but it might be a little too early to throw him in this evening.
Clint Dempsey should replace Zoltan Gera, who now seems set for a long spell on the sidelines after another average display at Swansea. What impresses me about Clint right now is that he’s so hungry to get on the field and create something. He also seems to offer us the cutting edge that we lack in the opposition’s box too, as he often works really hard to try and get ahead of the ball in the final third.
I fancy Bobby Zamora will come in for Erik Nevland again tonight. It might be fashionable to knock Zamora but I think he’s produced some excellent performances of late – away at Wigan and in his brief cameo up against Swansea as a substitute. He hasn’t had the luck in front of goal but what would a goal (however scrappy) tonight do for his confidence? We would, then, always have the option of bringing Nevland, a former Manchester United player of course, off the bench for the last 20-30 minutes of course.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Dacourt, Murphy, Dempsey, Davies; A. Johnson, Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Gray, Barnes, Nevland, Milsom.
REFEREE: Andre Marriner (West Midlands)