That has to be the objective on Saturday. We’ve played Manchester United twice in the past month or so and the aggregate score stands at 7-0 to the champions. They are likely to be fired up after that surprise defeat to Liverpool at Old Trafford last weekend and so, in the minds of many, little old Fulham stand very little chance. If we play the cautious, respectful game that saw us demolished in the FA Cup quarter final a few weeks ago, then we’ll be on the end of another thrashing.
It is imperative that Roy Hodgson sends his players out with a gameplan designed on pressing United and preventing them having the kind of time on the ball we’ve allowed in the two previous encounters. Whether it’s Michael Carrick or Paul Scholes running the show in central midfield, both have an extraordinary range of passing and will be able to spread the both so quickly. That means that Dickson Etuhu’s got to strong in the tackle and try get amongst United and none of the other midfielders can afford to shirk their responsibilities either. If Etuhu’s as admiring of United on the field as he is during interviews, we could be in for a long afternoon. United counter attack at pace too – see that memorable goal with which Ronaldo killed off our last spirited attempt at nicking a point from United a few years ago for the evidence – so you aren’t save from harm deep inside their half.
Mark Lawrenson has tipped us to draw 1-1, mirroring the outcome he foresaw in the Cup game. Whether he’s deliberately talking us up in attempt to convince himself that Liverpool still have a chance of taking the title I don’t know, but even with my most optimistic hat on I find it difficult to see us emerging with a point. The defence has been outstanding this season (we were back to what seems like the normal standard last Saturday at Bolton, bar the slackness that allowed Kevin Davies to score) but we can’t afford to give the likes of Tevez, Rooney or Berbatov a sniff of goal. You’d have thought we’d have learnt that by now.
Perhaps more importantly, playing against the top sides means you’ve got to take your chances. Silly as it might sound now, we actually had a good opening 20 minutes in the Cup against United. We started quite brightly and had Andy Johnson’s shot had a little more power behind it we might have got the early goal that you felt was crucial to our hopes. The suspension of Nemanja Vidic might help us carve out a few more chances, although the calibre of the replacement – I really do rate young Evans very highly – might make this somewhat wishful thinking. What you can say is that Bobby Zamora, who had an excellent game at Bolton, should be able to win a few more in the air against Evans, which might help us to gain a foothold. Without him, both in the Cup game and against Blackburn, we were noticeably rudderless up front.
We still wait for the introduction of Giles Barnes into the first team set-up. Hodgson says the Derby loanee is not too far away from being given his opportunity but, after the win at the Reebok, he’s unlikely to want to drastically change the starting eleven. With our wide players doing so well of late, the only place you could really see Barnes fitting in would be in the centre of midfield – and sacrificing Etuhu’s tackling and presence against a side like United would be very dangerous indeed. I suspect the Barnes cameo will have to wait.
Hodgson is most likely to pick an unchanged side. Schwarzer has been outstanding in goal and the boffins at Championship Manager have recently named him as one of the ten best performers of the season. Just last night I was talking about how impressive John Pantsil has been at right-back – having been signed as second choice – and you run out of superlatives to describe the performances of Hangeland and Hughes. If anything, Paul Konchesky’s been the weak link at the back (the mistakes against Hull and West Ham will live long in the memory) but he’s also been effective in the challenge, good going forward and had a solid season.
We’ve talked quite a bit about Clint Dempsey this week. The American himself has acknowledged that this has been a watershed year for him, proving that he can make a real difference as a first-team regular. He’s worked hard to win his place back and has popped up with the goods. His ability to pop up with a vital goal or make the late, threatening run into the penalty area makes him a real asset and the sheer number of goals he’s scored this season suggest that he’s really made the breakthrough.
I’m of the opinion that Roy has sacrificed a little bit of Simon Davies’ effectiveness by shoving him out on the left. He did a good job there towards the end of last season, but as I’ve mentioned before, there was a lot more freedom afforded to our ball players in the crazy, do-or-die final weeks of that campaign. He looks much more at home back on the right hand side and has returned to something approaching his best form of late. The way he calmly slotted away that crucial second goal at Bolton last Saturday reminded me just why he’s so important to our side.
You might fancy those two to at least give United a few problems. Andy Johnson’s goal at Bolton means he’s reached 10 in all competitions for Fulham. His first season has been afflicted by niggling injury problems but he’s finally seeming to recover the sharpness and killer touch in front of goal that worry any defence. He’s an ever-willing runner (sometimes a bit too willing, in my opinion, as he drifts out to the left to collect possession) and will tire even the most durable of centre backs. If he can give Ferdinand and company the kind of torrid time they suffered at the hands of Fernando Torres, then we might be in business. You get the feeling, though, that Johnson’s effectiveness might well be married to just how well Zamora does his job tomorrow.
Once again, I’ll travel more in home than expectation – and, even that, without a great deal of hope. A good performance would be great. A result would be even better.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Davies, Dempsey; A. Johnson, Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Baird, Dacourt, Gera, Nevland, Kamara.