Just three days after their 2-0 away victory over Queens Park Rangers, Manchester United will be in London again for another Premier League clash on Wednesday-- this time with Fulham FC at Craven Cottage. During this same fixture last season, Fulham defender Brede Hangeland scored a disastrous 84th minute own-goal to put the visitors up 2-1. Moments later, Damien Duff handled in the box and the Reds appeared to be on their way to eventual victory. However, Nani failed to convert the penalty and just minutes later, Hangeland atoned for his error when he headed home the equaliser during a thrilling match. During the return fixture in April, United earned a 2-0 victory during the run-in that proved crucial in their title run.
Form Guide: United come into the match sitting 2nd in the table, two points behind leaders Manchester City. Their away form has been impressive thus far in league as their 20 points from 8 matches is unmatched -- nor is their three goals conceded from those same 8 matches. The next best defensive record in league comes from Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC -- each have conceded 7 goals from 8 matches away from home. The Reds have also gone 7 matches unbeaten in league with the last two coming in impressive fashion. It has been a proper response to their disappointing departure from the UEFA Champions League just two weeks ago.
Team News: Injuries have been a major hindrance at the club in recent weeks but the recent trend of news is towards the positive end of the spectrum. During the past weekend's match versus QPR, both Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) returned from injury and each is expected to be available for Fulham. In addition, right-back Rafael has returned to training and he is expected to be available soon. However, there is still a fair amount of negative in regards to the injuries at the club: Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher are out for the remainder of the season due to injury and illness, respectively. In addition, Anderson is expected to be out for a few more months due to injury while the likes of Michael Owen, Tom Cleverley, and Fabio are still out -- but with the hopes of returning by the new year.
Form Guide: Fulham enter the match sitting 11th in the league table. While their 18 goals from 16 matches indicates difficulties in scoring goals, their 18 goals conceded is good for 4th best in league -- their goal differential of 0 is 8th best in league. Their most recent league match was a 2-0 home victory over bottom of the table Bolton Wanderers. In Europe, the Cottagers experienced heartbreak during the past midweek when Danish side Odense BK scored an equaliser just seconds from the final whistle to knock out the 2009-10 Europa League finalists. Because of this run, it was a competition that had endeared itself to Fulham supporters.
Team News: Just as United, Fulham has also dealt with numerous players unavailable for their recent fixtures. Striker Bobby Zamora has recently been listed as dealing with a knock on his knee but speculation is that he's having some sort of feud with manager Martin Jol. Therefore, his availability is uncertain. No. 1 goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer is out as is Zdenek Grygera and Steve Sidwell. Simon Davies and Damien Duff have also been dealing with knocks recently and their availability is in question.
MUFC: Sir Alex Ferguson did something quite rare in his recent managerial history when he fielded an unchanged side last weekend versus Wolves. However, due to possible squad rotation during the congested festive fixture list, change is possible. No. 1 David De Gea is anticipated in goal but able deputy Anders Lindegaard could provide the Spaniard a midweek rest. In central defense, Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand might be the most reasonable guess but both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are possible to feature. At right-back, either Smalling or Jones are expected as is Patrice Evra at left-back. In central-midfield, the recently successful partnership of Michael Carrick and Phil Jones could feature again but Ryan Giggs is possible to start as well. Out on the flanks, Antonio Valencia or Nani is possible on the right while either Ashley Young and Nani is possible on the left-flank -- Park Ji-sung is a candidate for either flank as well. Up front, Wayne Rooney is almost certain to start and he likely will be partnered by either Danny Welbeck or Chicharito.
Fulham: Due to Fulham's thin squad and their injury concern, selection options for Jol are relatively limited. Backup goalkeeper David Stockdale is expected to deputise for No. 1 Mark Schwarzer while Brede Hangeland and Philippe Senderos are the anticipated center-back pairing. John Arne Riise is the automatic choice at left-back while Chris Baird is probable to start at right-back over Stephen Kelly. In central midfield, Danny Murphy is expected to be partnered by the more conservatively positioned Dickson Etuhu. Clint Dempsey is likely as a narrowly-positioned wide player on the left -- one who likes to drift in the space between the lines -- while Bryan Ruiz is a wide right player for Fulham that likes come inward. Up front, Andy Johnson appears the more likely selection over Zamora while Moussa Dembele is anticipated to play in a withdrawn role.
* Use Jones to close down Murphy?: During United's past match versus QPR, Jones played left of center -- the opposite side from the previous week versus Wolves -- and it was presumably so that he could be a natural positonal foil to Joey Barton. The result was -- whether coincidentally or not -- a poor match from Barton. Will Jones be used similary against Fulham's Murphy, if he is selected for this match? Murphy is the player that pulls the strings for his side in central-midfield and his club-leading 2.7 key passes per match indicates that he is a primary creative source for the Londoners. If Jones is matched with Murphy, this may provide the added benefit of Carrick being matched with Etuhu. If Etuhu stays conservative positionally, then Carrick can expect to see time on the ball and this increases the likelihood that he can distribute without relative burden.
* Track Dempsey's movement between the lines: United have a tendency to be vulnerable against sides that have players who roam in the space between the lines. This is especially so when they do not use Fergie's 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape that is often deployed in 'big matches.' This shape is unlikely to be used against Fulham due to them being a midtable caliber side and also because of depth concerns for United in central-midfield during this congested fixture list period. Therefore, Carrick -- assuming that he is deployed -- must be aware so that United can keep things compact between the midfield and defense lines when out of possession. If Carrick stays deep, this could provide two benefits: (1) time on the ball when United are in possession due to the possible previously mentioned 'tacital key.' Also, this could help provide cover if Dempsey is able to slip inside of Smalling (or Jones) and receive the ball in the dangerous space between the lines.
* Width: Against sides that play narrow in attack, opportunity is often there for the full-backs to get forward into the available space. There's the obvious threat of these full-backs getting caught out when possession is lost but the basic tactical ploy is to use a holding-player to provide cover. However, United may have not have a true holding-player deployed in this match. Therefore, it will be important for United's full-backs to be intelligent with choices on when to get forward into available space or when to play it conservatively so that space behind them isn't exploited on counterattacks. This is especially concerning with Evra. Perhaps a good tactical balance would be using Jones' energy to be combative higher up in midfield while Carrick sits deep and dictates from there -- this would allow the United midfield maestro to possibly be free due to Etuhu's deep-positioning and also free up the full-backs to bravely surge forward into this likely available space vacated by the narrowly-positioned Dempsey and Ruiz.
KO: Wednesday 8:00pm GMT, 3:00pm EST | Craven Cottage
TV: Fox Soccer (U.S.)
Odds: Fulham 4/1, Draw 5/2, Manchester United 8/11
TBB Prediction: Fulham 1-3 Manchester United