There are rarely any games that are ‘bigger’ than United away, in terms of profile anyway, and those that do involve the words ‘semi’ and/or ‘final’. Simply put, only once a season will we play infront of a 70k crowd and attract a world wide tv audience like we will tonight. Yet most people aren’t really fussed. The first few times we went there in our return to the top flight were probably exciting, but I was too young or disinterested to appreciate them and now United away seems fairly monotonous. We turn up, play infront of a dreadfully content crowd and lose, all at a fair expense. Oh, to be a naive, fledging Fulham fan.

United have, of course, a impressive history but I always find it quite a nice quirk that Fulham’s had a bit of influence in it over recent years (not that I’m trying to claim any responsbility on behalf of the club). We of course sold Saha for 13 million odd a few years ago, and while the move didn’t really work out for him or United he still picked up a few winners medals and his place in the Tottenham side even now is testimant to his ability. Van der Sar was probably one of the most important signings Ferguson made in the last decade though, and he was a mainstay in the side for many seasons, a keeper who gave a reassuring presence in goal after years of struggle to replace Schmeichal and who De Gea has struggled to emulate. A guy I think all at Fulham respect and I was glad that despite losing in his final game he got the last kick of the match. Going the other way I can’t really think of anyone who went straight from United to Fulham, but in the last 2 or 3 seasons we’ve had ex-United strikers Nevland and Healy who started in their reserve sides and way back when we had the wonderful George Best who arrived at the Cottage via a few clubs. The latest player to move between the two is Chris Smalling who I’m really pleased for; in fact  I did an interview with him just before he signed for them. A nice guy and a fabulous defender, he will go far in the game and there’s a very real chance he’ll start tonight.

Actually it’s not all bad.

  • Fulham have avoided defeat away to Manchester United only once in 49 years – that was a 3-1 Premier League victory in October 2003, when Lee Clark, Steed Malbranque and Junichi Inamoto scored for the visitors. (from the BBC)

Let’s not forget the Blackburn, Bilbao, Ajax and Palace wins at Old Trafford this season, or our impressive away performances to Chelsea and Arsenal either. United have not been the force at home they were last season, say. There is always hope. And hope is stronger than fear. Which is a moot point if we don’t have any hope. So despite my initial appraisal, we should only expect defeat, not presume it. IF we play well we can pose a real test to United, and if they have a subdued performance in any form we can take advantage of it for sure. But we need to play very very well, and if we don’t we may as well not turn up. I don’t think that’s a pessemistic view, just realistic.  Both sides have a fair motivation for the game – United can go 3 points clear at the top whereas we’d like to erase the memory of the appauling performance to Swansea last week and improve on our dreadful away record which includes just 8 goals in 14 games – so hopefully at the least it will be an entertaining one.

Team news for us is very simple – no one has recovered or been injured since Swansea. For United, Phil Jones and Cleverly return which is quite worrying because they are two impressive young players. United are expected to line up in their 4-4-1-1, with Rooney behind Welbeck, Valencia and Young their particular danger men. I think our best chances of a result are the 4-5-1 we played against Chelsea, but with Diarra in the centre with Demps on the left and Pogrebnyak upfront instead of Zamora.

The 4-5-1 will be especially important to suffocate United as they come forward. It will give us plenty of bodies so that Rooney can’t influence the game just infront of the back four where he so often causes havoc, and hopefully forces him deeper, and a spare midfielder so that one can go out and double up on Young or Valencia so our full backs aren’t as exposed. You’d imagine only one of Scholes and Carrick will play and I’d be tempted to stick Pogrebnyak on whichever one of them does to limit their influence, although that gives the centre halves free reign to come forward with the ball. If we stay disciplined, with focus and determination, I think that the defensive structure of the side can be very effective tonight.

Offensively we must exploit any counter atacking opportunity we have. Dempsey and Dembele will  have to be at their dynamic best whereas Pogrebnyak will need to play with his back to goal well, a role that isn’t his natural one but vitally important should we get the ball forward. The attacking intentions of United should mean that there is space to play in if we are slick enough and hopefully that is where Ruiz can demonstrate his quality; you’d imagine Ruiz will be our main creative output and hopefully this is a stage that he will relish. If the counter attack is not on we can’t force it. The priority is to keep possession, and probe in dangerous areas instead of succumbing to the temptation of keeping the ball deep because if/when United win it back the pace they’ll counter with us on will be too devestating – just look at their humbling of us in December. We are moderately successful at that (the problem comes in the next stage of forcing an opportunity) so hopefully we can play to our strength in that regard.

So as long as we are sharp and playing at our best I think we could force a result should United not be at the races, and hopefully that will be the case. Unfortunately, I just can’t see it, and I think that their superior quality will take them the win.

My Prediction: Manchester United 2 – 0 Fulham