So, Manchester United tomorrow. The big games just keep coming for Fulham. At least the bonus for Roy Hodgson is that not all of those heroes who took us into the last 32 of the Europa League in Basel on Wednesday will be required to deliver another herculean effort at Craven Cottage on Saturday. Brede Hangeland watched from the sidelines for the duration of our European success in midweek and, Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff, were only used as last substitutes. There’s the added bonus of Erik Nevland, Paul Konchesky and Chris Baird returning from their continental suspensions for the weekend too and Hodgson has reiterated this morning that he has no problem with reintroducing his top players to the side.
Without sounding outrageously flippant, beating Manchester United doesn’t seem as difficult these days as it once was. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side no longer seem impregnable, as evidenced by their number of early season defeats, which might have been caused by the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, who was so talismanic during his Old Trafford career. Of course, Fulham’s most famous victory of a fabulous season last year came against United, gloriously unexpectedly after the Red Devils had unceremoniously thumped us in the FA Cup a week earlier.
That day passed in a blink of an eye. Bobby Zamora played had a stormer up front, significantly inconvenciencing Rio Ferdinand, and causing Paul Scholes to handle a goalbound header. The ten men of United had a fierce spell of pressure in the second half but, with Schwarzer outstanding, Fulham held firm and a frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo showed Phil Dowd his knees, only for the referee to return the gesture. Zoltan Gera’s improvised overhead kick sparked wild delirium and settled the issue before Wayne Rooney saw a late red card and belligerently punched the Putney End corner flag on his way down the tunnel.
Most people make United firm favourites for tomorrow’s clash and that’s understandable. Ferguson has a wealth of attacking talent at his disposal and wins are imperative to sustain their title challenge. Confidence might have been restored by a midweek win over Wolves but a defensive conundrum could keep Ferguson occupied for much of the build-up. Nemanja Vidic, such a commanding figure at the heart of the defence, is a doubt after picking up an injury against Wolves and, with a further six defenders definitely sidelined, the United back four could have a decidedly unfamiliar look to it. Richie De Laet, who stood in on Wednesday, could continue alongside Michael Carrick, although deploying midfielders in defence will necessitate changes further up the field.
That might mean we get a glimpse of two of United’s elder statesmen. Ryan Giggs has been the subject of much discussion in the week since he was a surprisingly winner of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award, but there’s no doubt his talent is an enduring one. Paul Scholes remains one of the country’s finest creative midfielders, as he illustrated in an easy win for United over Fulham at Old Trafford last spring, who would surely be on Fabio Capello’s radar had he not already called time on his England career. Michael Owen could get a rare league start to press his World Cup claims, too, even if it’s a bit harsh to describe the striker as a veteran.
Fulham’s selection issues seem relatively straightforward by comparison. Dempsey and Duff should return to midfield, in front of Paul Konchesky and John Pantsil respectively, if Hodgson’s experiment of playing the Irish winger on the ‘wrong’ flank continues. That would be harsh on Bjorn-Helge Riise, who had his best game for Fulham in Basel. The Norwegian sent in threatening centres and was a dangerous operator down the right flank. Could he elbow Dempsey out of the side? Not yet probably, but Riise’s progression is evidence of the healthy competition for places in this Fulham squad.
Wednesday’s hero was Zamora, who has always been a good player, however much people wish to trumpet his recent ‘resurgence’. Bobby’s in a fine run of goalscoring form, at the moment, and should be partnered by Erik Nevland, although Fulham will check on Andy Johnson’s fitness after a potential comeback in Basel had to be postponed after he picked up a problem in training.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Zamora, Nevland. Subs: Stockdale, Smalling, Kelly, Gera, Riise, Greening, A. Johnson.