The Premier League is the main show this weekend after giving way to a fantastic fourth round of FA Cup fixtures a week ago. Next up for Manchester United is a trip down to Craven Cottage in London to take on Fulham, the same side they knocked out of the FA Cup last weekend at Old Trafford by a 4-1 scoreline. These two sides have met previously in August as well -- again at the Theatre of Dreams -- when United defeated the visitors 3-2 during the league reverse fixture.
Form Guide: Sir Alex Ferugson's side enter the weekend top of the league table and seven points clear of nearest title-contending rival Manchester City. Thus far, they've earned 59 points from 24 matches. United are on a terrific run of domestic results as they've gone unbeaten in their past 15 fixtures, with 12 of those being victories. The most recent game came at the midweek when they barely held on to defeat Southampton 2-1 in league action.
Form Guide: The Cottagers currently sit 12th in the table as they've earned 28 points from 24 matches. Martin Jol's side is about as mid-table as one can be -- they're 8 points clear of the drop zone but they're 10 points away from European qualification contention. They responded well from recent successive defeats by the two Manchester clubs by defeating West Ham United 3-1 at the midweek.
Team News: Dimitar Berbatov, Kieran Richardson, Steve Sidwell, Mahamadou Diarra, Kerim Frei, and Simon Davies have all been ruled out due to injury. January loan signings Eyong Enoh and Stanislav Manolev are unavailable as well due to their work permits not yet being ready.
United: With Ferguson having nearly a full squad available to choose from and with no midweek club fixture on the horizon, trying to project his starting XI is mostly a futile exercise. I'll give it a go nonetheless.
In goal, the gaffer is likely to persist with David de Gea but Anders Lindegaard, as always, is possible for a surprise start. Rio Ferdinand will start as a central-defender and he could be partnered by any of Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, or Phil Jones. If United want to be cautious with Vidic's knee, he could be given a rest since he featured at the midweek. Evans has just returned to training after being injured so his fitness is uncertain. Patrice Evra and Rafael are expected in the full-back positions.
Michael Carrick's name is usually the first name written down in midfield but he's a candidate to be rested after featuring twice in the past week. Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Paul Scholes, and Ryan Giggs are in contention for a role in the center of the park as well.
Out wide in attack, Giggs is very possible on the left after a strong performance last weekend there versus the Cottagers. Any of Nani, Danny Welbeck, or Shinji Kagawa are possible left-wingers as well. On the opposite side, Welbeck, Nani, and Antonio Valencia are in contention for a role on the right-flank. Up front, Robin van Persie is likely to start and he could be partnered by any of Kagawa, Welbeck, Wayne Rooney, or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito). It's worth noting that the Mexican international missed the Southampton match due to a minor back issue and he is also set to travel to North America in the upcoming midweek for a World Cup qualifier.
Fulham: Choosing a team is a bit easier for Jol since he doesn't have nearly the squad depth of United. Mark Schwarzer is the No.1 and in front of him, the first-choice center-back duo of Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes are anticipated. The latter, though, had a shocker at Old Trafford and he could be dropped for Phillipe Senderos. At left-back, John Arne Riise is expected but Matthew Briggs is possible. Sascha Riether is the likely right-back.
In central-midfield, Giorgos Karagounis and Chris Baird are the expected duo but Bryan Ruiz and the newly signed (on loan) Urby Emanuelson could make a surprise appearance there -- Jol compared the latter to Moussa Dembele in his pre-match press conference. The Dutch attacking-midfielder, though, is more likely to feature on the left-side of attack. Other players in contention for a role out wide, left or right, are Ruiz, Damien Duff, Ashkan Dejagah, and Alexander Kacaniklic. With Berbatov out, Hugo Rodallega is expected to be the fulcrum in attack -- although Mladen Petric is possible -- with Ruiz playing 'in the hole'.
Not much has changed from last weekend's match with Fulham. Much of the tactical discussion from our preview for that game still applies:
* 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.
* 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.
Perhaps the biggest key from last weekend's cup match -- aside from Fulham just playing really, really poorly -- is that United were able to drastically push Fulham back. There were two keys to this: (1) The movement of the front four -- Chicharito, Rooney, Giggs, and Nani -- was superb and this continually dragged Fulham's defenders out of position while the Brazilian duo of Anderson and Rafael were a driving force in their respective areas on the pitch. This was all compounded further when Berbatov began to drop deep in search of the ball because he was getting increasingly frustrated due to a lack of service. What ultimately resulted was the away side's two banks of four being pinned back and their front two attackers not being able to offer any sort of outlet since they were so deep. Fulham were completely dominated. United would do well in trying to replicate this.
KO: 5:30pm GMT, 12:30pm EST | Craven Cottage
TV info: ESPN (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)
Referee: Kevin Friend
Odds: Fulham 5/1, Draw 11/4, Manchester United 8/13