Manchester United, who have won the FA Cup a record 11 times, host Fulham FC on Saturday night for a 4th round match-up in England's top domestic cup competition. The Red Devils earned passage to this round after their 1-0 defeat of West Ham United in a round 3 replay at Old Trafford. The Cottagers, themselves, also advanced from a replay victory -- theirs being a 2-1 defeat of Championship side Blackpool.
United and Fulham have met once this season in August during a Premier League match at the 'Theatre of Dreams'. The home side prevailed by a 3-2 scoreline that day after first-half goals from Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa, and Rafael. These two sides will meet again next weekend at Craven Cottage in the league reverse fixture.
Form Guide: United enter the weekend top of the league table and with a 5-point advantage over nearest title-contending rival Manchester City. They've earned 56 points thus far from 23 matches. Sir Alex Ferguson's side is unbeaten in their past 13 domestic matches. The most recent result occurred last weekend during a 1-1 draw against Tottenham Hotspur at a snowy White Hart Lane.
Form Guide: Fulham currently sit 14th in the table with 25 points from 23 matches. They are 6 points clear of the drop zone. Victories have been difficult to come by for Martin Jol's side as they've only won twice in their past 15 league matches. The Cottagers most recent result is a 0-2 league defeat by City last weekend.
United: The Red Devils do appear to be highly-motivated to lift the FA Cup for the first time since 2004. However, it's possible that squad could see quite a bit rotation -- especially if Ferguson prioritizes the upcoming midweek league encounter with Southampton. As always, the gaffer will likely be planning the use of his squad with multiple games in mind.
In goal, either David de Gea or Anders Lindegaard are possible. In the back, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand could be rested and if that happens, then Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are available in central-defense. The latter two are also possible at right-back, as is first-choice Rafael. At left-back, if Patrice Evra is given the night off, then Alexander Buttner will be the deputy.
In central-midfield, any of Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, Paul Scholes, Anderson, or Ryan Giggs are possible. If Ferguson opts for a system with wingers, then the likes of Nani, Kagawa, Giggs, Antonio Valencia, and Danny Welbeck are possible out wide. Up front, either van Persie or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) will lead the attack line and in support of this lead striker could be either van Persie, Kagawa, Welbeck, or Wayne Rooney. The possibilities for Ferguson's selection choices seems endless.
Fulham: In his pre-match press conference on Friday, Jol indicated that he would play his strongest possible side for this cup tie. In goal, Mark Schwarzer is anticipated and the center-back duo ahead of him is likely to be Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland. Sascha Riether has become the clear first-choice right-back and opposite of him at left-back will be either John Arne Riise or Matthew Briggs.
In midfield, Steve Sidwell and Giorgios Karagounis are likely to start in the center of the park but Chris Baird and Bryan Ruiz may be in contention. Out wide, any two of Ashkan Dejagah, Damien Duff, or Alexander Kacaniklic are possible. Up front, former United striker Dimitar Berbatov will start -- either in support of a lead striker like Mladen Petric or Hugo Rodallega or he'll be deployed as a No.9 with Ruiz in support of him.
* The basics of Fulham: Jol is an adventurous manager. The Dutchman will likely arrive at the Theatre of Dreams looking to attack. Fulham's approach in their 4-4-1-1 system is bold, but it is relatively basic.
Hughes and Hangeland form a nice, balanced partnership in the back as the former is calm and positionally sound while the latter is strong in the air and willing to get stuck in for crunching tackles. The full-backs try to get forward into attack and Riether, in particular, has impressed while on loan from Cologne.
In the center of the park, Sidwell or Baird is usually the ball-winner while Euro 2004 winner Karagounis is the midfield-partner that is more ambitious with his passing.
In attack, tricky wingers are an important source of chances created. Berbatov is the focal point in attack -- he'll either have a No.10 sort of role in behind a No.9 type like Petric or Rodallega or the Bulgarian will play as a 'false 9' sort while Ruiz plays a direct role in support of him.
* Crosses: I think we can expect Jol instructing his side to pump in crosses:
"Manchester United and Manchester City are similar teams. Although we didn’t have a shot on target [in our last match at City] we had 22 open-play crosses which is more than ever before. Also, you probably have to go back to August or September to find a team that had more possession than City. So, if you forget the first goal, we did okay but we were not great on the final ball, movement in the box, shots on goal, so that was disappointing. But they didn’t have the experience of playing against teams who put 22 open-play crosses in so there were one or two positive things. Hopefully we can do the same against United and be on the end of one and score a couple of goals."
- Jol | Source: FulhamFC.com
Ferguson felt this was Spurs' basic strategy last weekend:
"It was a really difficult, grueling game but we dealt with everything they did. They kept pumping that ball in the box and we kept heading it out. Unfortunately we didn’t get that last one that really mattered, the last kick of the game."
- Ferguson | Source: MUTV
Quite predictably, de Gea's (weak?) punching clearance just prior to Clint Dempsey's equaliser was a polarizing post-match talking point. The young Spaniard is undoubtedly a brilliant shot-stopper but he still struggles for consistent command of his box. It would hardly be surprising if opposing managers are hoping to pump crosses into United's box in order to test the goalkeeper. It would hardly would be surprising if Ferguson realizes this and feels that his counterparts are focused on it.
Fortunately for United, they looked mostly assured in the back with Vidic and Ferdinand clearing nearly everything that came their way at White Hart Lane. They still might be two of the world's better penalty box defenders. Whether it's them starting, or possibly Chris Smalling and/or Phil Jones in central-defense, 90+ minutes of focus will be key as Fulham will likely attempt to be relentless with balls pumped into the box. It's not only about winning the initial aerial duel, clearance of second balls is vitally important as well.
* Midfield battle: It's become almost routine (and lazy) to make a quip about United's vulnerable midfield. They still aren't nearly on par -- in regards to midfield comparisons -- with the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid, but they do deserve credit for playing decently well as of late. Michael Carrick, according to Ferguson, is having his finest season ever and Tom Cleverley has impressed as well. Assuming Ferguson doesn't select an immobile duo like Scholes and Giggs together, United should have an advantage in midfield for this game.
The one particular vulnerability that Fulham might have is in the space between their defensive and midfield lines. Their lines tend to be two flat banks of four and when they attempt to press, their team shape can become incredibly open -- particularly when the opposition can transition quickly. Mobile players like Cleverley and Anderson can take advantage of this by driving into that space while a No.10 -- such as Rooney or Kagawa -- naturally thrives in that part of the pitch. This area of space is likely going to be key for many of United's attacking moves.
KO: 5:30pm GMT, 12:30pm EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: ESPN (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Odds: Manchester United 1/4, Draw 9/2, Fulham 10/1