Manchester United make their 2012/13 season Old Trafford debut on Saturday afternoon when they host Fulham FC for a Premier League contest. The two sides clashed twice last season in league matches: this same fixture last season resulted in United trashing the Cottagers 5-0 at Craven Cottage just prior to Christmas and during the reverse fixture at the 'Theatre of Dreams' in March, a Wayne Rooney goal was enough for the Red Devils to earn all three points.
Form Guide: Sir Alex Ferguson's side is currently 15th in the table after their 0-1 defeat by
Marouane Fellaini Everton FC on Monday at Goodison Park. Club in crisis!!! Don't worry, Liverpool is currently 18th in the table so they'll surely be relegated this season.
Team News: Almost of United's injury concerns occur at one positon: center-back. Rio Ferdinand, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, and Chris Smalling have all been ruled out for this match. Darren Fletcher is unlikely to be available as well due to his bowel condition. (Manchester United Team News Report)
Form Guide: If Clint Dempsey's desire to be sold is denied, at least he may still get the Champions League football he so badly craves. Martin Jol's side are currently 2nd in the table and with a game in hand on Chelsea! The opening weekend saw Fulham thrash Norwich City by a 5-0 scoreline.
Team News: Kerim Frei and Philippe Senderos are unavailable as is Dempsey due to his transfer saga. Simon Davies is a doubt as well.
United: No. 1 David de Gea will be between the posts while Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra are certain in the back four. In central-defense, Vidic is likely to be partnered by midfielder Michael Carrick but any of Scott Wootton, Michael Keane, or Evra are slight possibilities. Evra is the first-choice left-back but if he slides inside, then new signing Alexander Buttner could make his debut on the left. Either Antonio Valencia or Rafael is expected at right-back.
In central-midfield, any two of Paul Scholes, Tom Cleverley, or Carrick are likely and they will be flanked by either Valencia or Nani on the right and any of Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa, Ashley Young, or Nani are on the left. Up front, Robin van Persie likely makes his first start for United but Rooney is also possible as the lead striker. Either Kagawa or Rooney will be 'in the hole'.
Fulham: Jol is anticipated to name the same starting XI -- in a 4-4-1-1 system -- that earned the impressive 5-0 victory last weekend: Mark Schwarzer in goal; a back four of Sascha Riether, Aaron Hughes, Brede Hangeland, and John Arne Riise; Mahamadou Diarra and Moussa Dembele in central-midfield while flanked by Damien Duff and Alexander Kacaniklic; Bryan Ruiz in a withdrawn role; and Mladen Petric as the lead striker.
* What approach will Fulham take?: Jol has received praise for Fulham's attacking ways. However, when his side arrived at Old Trafford in March, they continually defended deep and in two narrow and compact banks of four. This left them with few genuine attacking opportunities but the tactics certainly frustrated United. Here's a quote from Sir Alex after that match:
"When you sit back, it doesn't matter if you've got 11 plumbers, joiners or footballers, it's hard to break down."
Jol could be looking to change up his approach a bit though because his squad may be full of confidence after their impressive five-goal performance versus Norwich City and also because it's possible that he feels United is vulnerable in the back right now. Petric appears to be a strong enough center-forward but if Ruiz tries to occupy Vidic so that the new Croatian signing can be isolated on Carrick -- or whoever else partners Vida -- he certainly isn't the same sort of physical presence that Marouane Fellaini was last week. Nonetheless, Jol could decide to take a proactive approach if he perceives weakness and this could result in an extremely open match. If Fulham decide to defend deep again though, then Paul Scholes' ability to quickly change the point of attack with long-arrowed passes from deep and United playing with width on at least one side will be key factors in attempting to loosen a tight defense.
* What will United's front four look like?: With only one match per week at this point of the season and with a plethora of attacking options, who will Fergie select? No matter who is selected, there are two keys that could help United create chances: (1) Playing with more width -- or perhaps with more effective width -- than they did last weekend and (2) fluid movement in the front four. On the latter, when United bagged five goals versus Fulham last December, Ryan Giggs -- who was in central-midfield that day -- had this to say after that impressive attacking performance:
"For myself and Michael Carrick in midfield, the movement in front of us was brilliant. Obviously the defending was good as well. But when you have so many options on the ball – people running in behind, people dropping in the hole – we’re a very difficult team to play."
On width, perhaps pushing Valencia up from right-back to right-winger while partnered by Rafael at right-back could solve this problem. Both players seem to have a good understanding with one another and while Valencia continually hugs the touchline waiting to receive, Rafa is comfortable cutting inside of him when he surges forward. Nani was quite underwhelming on the right flank versus Everton.
On fluid movement, you'll likely see this attempted no matter who the lead striker, number 10, and left-side attacker are. Whether it's van Persie or Rooney up front, you'll probably see active and intelligent movement (although Rooney's has been underwhelming since the Spring). In addition, Kagawa's understanding of space is superb as evident by his impressive debut versus Everton and also from his recent two championship seasons with Borussia Dortmund. If he's in the number 10 role (please Fergie!), you're likely to see similar movement as last week. If the Japanese international is tasked to the left, he likely will continually drift inside and look to interchange. If RvP starts up front and along with Rooney and Kagawa, it's not entirely clear between the latter two players on which player will be the number 10 and which will be the wide left player. Nani, Welbeck, and Young are certainly possible on the left as well and these players will also look to come inside from that position. No matter who the front four is, understanding between them will be key to the effectiveness of the attack. The newly signed Kagawa wasn't always on the same wavelength with Rooney last week.
KO: 3:00pm BST, 10:00am EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: Setanta Sports 1 (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)
Referee: Kevin Friend
Odds: Manchester United 2/3, Draw 4/1, Fulham 9/1