This could be a big weekend for Manchester United. Left for dead in the race for the final Champions League spot two months ago, the Reds have now climbed to the dizzying heights of fifth and will move into the top four (temporarily or not) with another win on Saturday at Fulham.
It’s a lunchtime kickoff this weekend at Craven Cottage, where United hope to continue Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s unbeaten run as caretaker manager. Performances have suffered a bit in recent weeks, but the Reds should have little trouble with Claudio Ranieri’s relegation-threatened side.
Back in early December, United made short work of the visiting Cottagers. By halftime, they led 3-0 behind goals from Ashley Young, Juan Mata, and Romelu Lukaku. Nowadays, only Young still gets regular starts. A lot can change in a couple of months.
At Leicester last Sunday, United scrapped their way to a 1-0 win. It wasn’t particularly convincing, but winning at the King Power Stadium is never an easy ask. United should just be glad to return home with three points. Especially on a day when Arsenal lost at Manchester City. Sometimes, the result is all that matters.
Leicester outshot United and the visitors once again relied on the lightning-quick reflexes of David De Gea to preserve their clean sheet (and the win). But Solskjaer’s not complaining: “The three points should always give the lads confidence. They’re not 100% happy with the performance, which is great because we know we can do better than this.”
“If you have the foundation of a clean sheet, you’ll always be in with a chance to win a game and we’ve got a keeper that saves us,” the caretaker boss continued. “We’ve got a back four that sacrifices everything in the box and a couple of midfielders who made a couple of great blocks. That was absolutely amazing to watch and the attitude has been spot on ever since I came.”
Marcus Rashford scored the winner at Leicester, but might be rested on Saturday with the all-important Paris Saint-Germain match just three days later. If Solskjaer holds the 21-year-old out, Romelu Lukaku or Alexis Sánchez are possibilities to start up top at Craven Cottage.
United boast a relatively clean bill of health. Anthony Martial came off the bench last weekend and should hopefully be ready to return to the starting eleven — either at Fulham or against PSG.
Claudio Ranieri’s Fulham, already in dire straits after a horrible first-half, started 2019 in especially poor form. They lost three straight Premier League games to open the new year and crashed out of the FA Cup against League Two’s Oldham Athletic. The Cottagers rebounded with a big win over Brighton & Hove Albion, but failed to maintain that momentum with a 2-0 loss at Crystal Palace at the weekend.
The Palace loss was an odd one. Fulham held 63% possession, but couldn’t even muster a single shot on goal. No wonder they’re in the drop zone.
Ranieri can do little but put on a brave face. “All the big teams are coming to Craven Cottage, so maybe we can take some points from the big teams,” the Italian manager said. “In the Premier League, you never know what will happen. We have to be positive every time, until the end. I want the maximum in every training session. I want the maximum in every match. I’m positive.”
In the just-closed January transfer window, Fulham made three signings — Lazar Markovic (Liverpool), Ryan Babel (Besiktas), and Havard Nordtveit (on loan from Hoffenheim). Each comes to Craven Cottage with plenty to prove. Babel joined early in the month and has started on the left wing in all three matches since signing. Markovic and Nordtveit, though, have yet to debut for their new club.
Notice: No out-and-out defenders. That’s where Fulham desperately need help. At a time when other sides at the bottom made big splashes — Newcastle prying Miguel Almiron out of MLS, Michy Batshuayi to Crystal Palace, etc. — Fulham might rue their quiet January.
One player getting little chance to improve Fulham’s defense is United loanee Timothy Fosu-Mensah. He’s barely gotten on the pitch under Ranieri, with the manager even telling the 21-year-old that he could return to his parent club in January. While there’s little hope for playing time back at Old Trafford, Fosu-Mensah curiously chose to gut it out at Fulham instead of seeking another loan elsewhere.
Two interesting considerations ahead of this weekend’s match: (1) The trip to Fulham comes just three days before the pivotal first-leg match against PSG. Solskjaer surely will have one eye on the Champions League when making his team selection for Saturday. Expect a rotated side. (2) Chelsea, currently clinging to a narrow two point lead over United, face a tough one at the Etihad. If the Reds take care of business in London and all goes well elsewhere, Manchester United could end the weekend in the top four. Right back where they belong.