Manchester United will look to kick start their 2012/13 Premier League campaign at the second time of asking, in their first home game of the season when they welcome Fulham tonight.
The Red Devils were rocked at Goodison Park in the opening week of the season. United lost 1-0 on the night, meaning they are already three points off the pace of Manchester City, and six points off of Chelsea, who played a midweek fixture against Reading. It was not the start of the season United had hoped for, but it is reasonable to expect, given the level of Everton’s performance, that not many teams will take maximum points from the blue side of the Merseyside.
Fulham, on the other hand, enjoyed a spectacular start to the season. A thumping 5-0 win, in which new boy Mladen Petric starred, over Norwich City marks a massive start for Martin Jol’s side, as he tries to take Fulham another step towards a return to European football. Petric will be key again, and he will be surely watching United’s defensive injury crisis with anticipation, after watching Fellaini mercilessly take advantage of the chronic lack of defenders in United’s back line at the moment.
It is a crisis not set to ease any time soon. Phil Jones is back in training as of yesterday, whilst there were rumours of a possible early return for Jonny Evans, but he has since suffered a set back. Rio Ferdinand is close to a return, and could be back for the trip to Southampton, but he is certainly not fit enough to take part in the game tonight:
“Defenders have been having more injuries than the forward in recent years. It is strange. You would think it was the other way around. We have a strong squad and we are going to use it. There will be opportunities for everyone to share in that and contribute to whatever we achieve this season.
“Phil Jones has started training. Chris Smalling is long term. Rio, I think, will be ready for next week. Evans was doing well but felt it in training on Sunday and hasn’t trained since. I’m not sure whether that is long term or a short-term setback.
“I need to call Bruce and Pallister!”, Sir Alex joked.
“It’s pretty much the same as Monday night injury-wise. Alex [Buttner] will be involved tomorrow because he gives that back-up. Evra could actually play centre-back. He has done in the past. But I don’t think Alex will start tomorrow, I think he’ll be on the bench.”
“I went to see Fulham last Saturday and they played very well,” he added. “They have a lot of experience in their team with six players over 30. We’re at home and we need to make an impact quickly after Monday’s game.”
Martin Jol is hoping to get a better result at Old Trafford than he did last year, when they lost 1-0, a result he feels could have gone another way on a different day:
“Last season [at Old Trafford] they scored one goal out of nothing,” Jol said. “But in the second half we were better and we could have scored – we should have scored – and we should have had a penalty but we didn’t get it so we lost 1-0.
“But hopefully we can play our own game – that is the most important thing. We have to try and play our football and create chances and if you score one or two goals then you’re always in with a chance of a result.”
Key to his aspirations is stopping Robin Van Persie, who is set to make his home debut, but Jol is not phased by the task at hand, and is confident that his players can cope with the challenge:
“If you don’t come up with a few answers then it will be easy for Van Persie. But we know him. We did well against Arsenal last year, twice, and hopefully we can again cope with the service and the individual class of van Persie. We have to keep it narrow down the spine, and try to avoid their players from midfield getting the ball to him all the time. If we do that, then there is always a chance.”
Sir Alex on the other hand, is hoping for big things from his new number 20:
“I am excited myself about Robin van Persie. He is a very good player. He brings a maturity to us up front. I am looking forward to him starring when he starts.
“The important thing for us is he brings something to the team. His goal record last year hopefully transmits itself to our goalscoring performances and give us more of a goal edge. Wayne [Rooney] got 30 last season and he has been improving his goal total for the last few years. We need that goal contribution from all the strikers.
“We know Chicharito is capable of scoring goals in a different way to Robin and Wayne. Danny Welbeck is also a different type of player. It does give us fantastic options. That is the biggest attraction to me.”
After a disappointing start to the season last time around, United need to make a big statement in this game, their first at Old Trafford for the season, and I would expect that to be demonstrated in the line up Sir Alex chooses.
I’m tipping a similar shape to the one that started at Everton, but with Rooney dropping into the whole to accommodate a home debut for Robin Van Persie. Last week, Welbeck played a very narrow role on the left hand side of the “3″ in a 4-2-3-1, and I think Kagawa will look to fulfill a similar role this time around, as he hopes to link up with Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie. Valencia could also be pushed forward into attack after Rafael was rested after his Olympics involvement with Brazil for the season opener against Everton. This means Nani could find himself benched after a terrible performance last week.
Scholes has had a week to recover, and could be played in the middle with Tom Cleverley once more, though Anderson is also an option after his decent cameo at Goodison Park. Unlike most of his teammates in the middle of the park, Anderson provides a real drive through the middle of the park, with a willingness to take players on, and has the potential to reform what was a stunning partnership with Tom Cleverley in the middle of the park.
David de Gea is really the only choice to start in goals, given his brilliance last week, meaning Anders Lindegaard will be consigned to the bench once more, whilst I’m tipping the same back four, besides Rafael who would come in at right back, to start this game. Sir Alex suggested that Evra could start in the centre of defence, but that would seem an odd move . Carrick might have had a tough game at Goodison Park against Fellaini, but with Sir Alex confirming that new signing Alexander Buttner would more than likely be starting on the bench, it’s hard to see who would start at left back in that instance.
United will have to be wary of the creative, forward thinking Moussa Dembele, who they were supposedly interested in signing this summer, but also of Fulham’s new spearhead in attack, Mladen Petric. The Croatian scored two and assisted another during his Premier League debut. I would expect a side with Vidic in the team to deal with the threat he poses a little better than Norwich did last week, but he will undoubtedly prove a danger United will have to be aware of.
A lot will depend on how the likes of Rooney, Van Persie, Valencia and Kagawa link up (you can substitute the likes of Nani, Young, Welbeck and Hernandez into these positions too) in the attacking third to unlock Fulham’s disciplined defence, but if they can get it right, it could just rain goals at Old Trafford this evening.
Manchester United – 3
Fulham – 1