.

MANCHESTER UNITED
v
FULHAM

Old Trafford, Manchester
April 9, 2011; 7:30 P.M. IST – Live on ESPN

Premiership’s worst travelers Fulham head to Old Trafford this weekend hoping to end their away day blues. However, league leaders Man United have a virtually perfect home record to boast about. Fulham are still not out of the relegation battle, but an improbable win could guide them to safety. Led by former Old Trafford striker Mark Hughes, the Londoners would have their work cut out against Ferguson’s well-oiled Red Army, who would come out all guns blazing buoyed by the memorable European triumph against current premier league champions Chelsea in midweek. Word of caution for the Old Trafford faithful though – Hughes remains the only former Red to have beaten his ex-manager Sir Alex in a league encounter albeit when he was in charge of ‘the Riversiders’.

Manchester United go into the game having overcome a Herculean task in defeating Chelsea at the Bridge in the Champions League which keeps them on track for another treble. The focus of the players and the manager would be back on the Premier League with United at the top of the table and in sight of a record 19th league title. Sir Alex would be hoping for his team to continue what has been a near perfect record at Old Trafford this season, which would take his team ten points clear of the Gunners, who do not play a game until Sunday. This would be Sir Alex’s third match of his five-match suspension from the sidelines. He’ll take his place a couple of rows above that.

Fulham, on the other hand, have got themselves some breathing space by moving 6 points clear of the relegation zone after an impressive 3-0 victory over fellow strugglers Blackpool last week at home. However, the Cottagers have the worst away record in the league with only one away win all season and with a trip to Old Trafford, Mark Hughes’ men would have to do something special to get anything out of the game. Stranger things have happened in football, though.

Team News and Tactical Brief

Manchester United

Wayne Rooney begins his two match ban after his universal swear reached millions of homes last week at Upton Park. With the striker returning to top form in the last couple of weeks, his absence would be a cause for worry for the United manager. However, injury worries have reduced considerably for United as most of the players are returning to full fitness which would really please Sir Alex at the fag end of the season. John O’ Shea and Wes Brown are fit for the game along with Anderson who scored two goals on Thursday night with his run out with the reserves. Paul Scholes is also available after missing two games due to suspension. Darren Fletcher is also nearing full fitness after being down with a virus but this game comes too soon for him. Rafael will also miss the game after picking a knock in midweek but has no serious injury and should be back for the return leg against Chelsea. Owen Hargreaves is still out with a shoulder injury while Jonny Evans in suspended.

Sir Alex would be having one eye on the upcoming Champions League game against Chelsea while selecting his team for this game. Tomasz Kuszczak is likely to get his second consecutive league start as Van Der Sar could be rested after tweaking his calf at the Bridge in mid-week. John O’ Shea is also certain to take the right back position while Smalling could also be back alongside Vidic if the manager decides to rest Ferdinand for the Chelsea game. Fabio is also likely to take his place at left back after a decent run out on the opposite flank at Upton park.

Scholes is likely to return in the midfield having not played a game for over a month due to suspension and International break. Carrick, who had an excellent game at the Bridge, will be partnering the Ginger Prince in the central midfield. Valencia and Nani could take their places on the right and left flanks, respectively. Rooney’s absence will provide Berbatov a chance to return in the starting line-up after being benched for the last few games. Michael Owen could also return to partner Berbatov in a 4-4-2 formation.

Probable Starting XI: Kuszczak, O’Shea, Vidic, Smalling, Fabio, Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Nani, Berbatov, Owen

football formations

Fulham

Mark Hughes finds himself in an unusually happy position with virtually a full squad to choose from. Damien Duff will be assessed on the morning of the game as he faces a late fitness test. Defender Aaron Hughes has recovered from his injury and is fit to take his place in the center of defence. The only first team player missing from the game is ex-Arsenal defender Phillipe Senderos who has an Achilles injury.

Fulham has a settled back four with Salcido, Hangeland, Hughes and Baird in defence and Schwarzer in goal. Duff’s injury could make way for Simon Davies in midfield alongside Etuhu, Murphy and top scorer Clint Dempsey. The biggest threat for United would be the attacking pair of Dembele and Zamora. Dembele has been a real revelation at his new club despite not scoring too many goals. His partnership with Zamora could cause problems for the United defence, especially when Zamora looked to be back to his best against Blackpool last weekend.

Probable Starting XI: Schwarzer, Baird, Hughes, Hangeland, Salcido, Davies, Etuhu, Murphy, Dempsey, Dembele, Zamora

Key Match Facts

1) None of the travelling teams have scored in the first half at Old Trafford this season.

2) Fulham have conceded just one penalty this season, which Nani missed in the reverse fixture.

3) Fulham are yet to have a player sent off this season.

TheHardTackle’s PLAYER TO WATCH OUT FOR

Dimitar Berbatov (Manchester United)

Ready to prove a point?

The mercurial Bulgarian has been in the shadows of late owing to the amazing breakthrough of United’s new poster boy Chicharito. Despite being the league’s leading goalscorer Berba has found it difficult to hold onto a starting berth in Sir Alex’s plan. However Wayne Rooney’s suspension provides an ideal opportunity for Berba to reclaim his place and silence his naysayers.

TheHardTackle’s PREDICTION

Manchester United 3-0 Fulham

The Red Devils are striking top form just at the right time of the season and with their impeccable record at Old Trafford compounded with Fulham’s travelling woes, the writing looks on the wall for the Cottagers. An early goal should pave the way for an easy victory for United.

TheHardTackle’s BLAST FROM THE PAST