Roy Hodgson might have raised the profile of one of English football’s friendlier clubs in the past few years, but it when comes to Manchester United, Mark Hughes certainly won’t be thanking him for the comparison. The new Fulham manager faces one of his former employers tomorrow afternoon knowing that, after two comprehensive home wins in the last two seasons at Craven Cottage, Hodgson has set the bar ridiculously high.
Given the way Sir Alex Ferguson’s side swept past Chelsea in the Community Shield and dismantled Newcastle in their opening fixture of the league campaign, a third straight success seems like a tall order. Ferguson will face none of the headaches that troubled him in the build-up to last season’s fixture, where he decided to play a back three (comprising of two midfielders and a promising youth-teamer) to try and make up for a host of defensive injuries. United are largely free of injury concerns and the main worry surrounds the form of Wayne Rooney, toasted only a few months ago as the man likely to rampage through the world’s best defences – and now without a goal in more than 18 hours. What’s the betting his barren run will end tomorrow afternoon? He surely won’t batter the Putney End corner flag in frustration again, will he?
Fulham’s best chance of upsetting the applecart once again will come from discipline and endeavour in midfield. Whilst Ferguson’s evergreen veterans, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, looked in sparkling form at Old Trafford on Monday night, they – like most of the United midfield – were afforded far too much room by Newcastle. Hughes won’t allow Fulham to be quite as accomodating and the pressing of Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu was one of the main reasons why United were so unable to flourish down by the Thames during Hodgson’s reign. The Nigerian enforcer will need to impose himself upon the contest early, ensuring that the likes of Scholes, Fletcher and Giggs don’t have too much time to pick a pass, whilst Murphy always seems to raise his game against Ferguson’s side. If they can dovetail effectively in the Fulham engine room, then that might allow the likes of Damien Duff and Zoltan Gera to provide Bobby Zamora, who starred in Fulham’s 3-0 success last December, with the sort of service upon which he thrives.
Stubborn defence will also be vital if the home side are to prosper. Even if David Stockdale did impress having been handed a late call-up to the side that drew at Bolton last week, the presence of Mark Schwarzer in the home goal would be a big psychological boost. Paul Konchesky, who has been linked with a move to Liverpool ever since Roy Hodgson headed up to Merseyside, is still trying to shake off an ankle injury and Stephen Kelly could be called upon to deputise once again at left back. John Pantsil might not have Cristiano Ronaldo to frustrate any more, but he could have hands full with the dangerous running of Antonio Valencia or the peerless Park Ji-Sung, who remains one of the top flight’s most underrated performers.
Hughes has spoken of a need for Fulham to improve upon their attacking play. The Whites were actually pretty adventurous at home last season, but with injuries still denying Hughes the services of potential partners for Zamora – Andy Johnson isn’t expected back from a knee injury for another month at best, whilst Diomansy Kamara’s foot injury will leave him sidelined until October – they can still be a little predictable going forward. New signing Moussa Dembele has not yet received the neccessary international clearance to make his debut, so the trusted Gera-Zamora axis will get another go but you sense Hughes is still trying to work out just how to accomodate the most creative players in his squad.
Fulham looked toothless at times up at Bolton on the opening day and only really perked up when Clint Dempsey replaced Gera with a quarter of an hour to go. The American has the ability to take on opponents and produce something unexpected, but is likely to be only an option off the bench again tomorrow. With United likely to try and lay down a marker early on, Fulham will need to be defensively durable and take their chances. Another point would be a fantastic return.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Kelly, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Stockdale, Baird, Stoor, Greening, Riise, Dempsey, Elm.