These two clubs have had disappointing seasons up to now. Manchester United look unlikely to win a trophy this season under David Moyes, while qualifying for next season’s Champions League also looks a tall ask for the champions from their current position. At the other end of the table, Fulham have been extremely poor as they are in a real scrap for their Premier League status. Their change in ownership has resulted in confusion about who is in charge with Alan Curbishley and Ray Wilkins, both former managers, employed by the club, while Rene Meulensteen is the official manager. The presence of the first two will not be helpful for Meulensteen in his first Premier League managing job. The pressure is building on the Dutchman as he returns to Old Trafford on Sunday after serving on Sir Alex Ferguson’s coaching staff, so he’ll get a good reception from the fans.
Manchester United have been languishing in 7th place for a while now and they are still seven points off Liverpool in 4th. The Champions need to narrow that gap in the coming months if they are to stand any chance of getting into next season’s Champions League, so they can’t drop many more points. They have lost three of their last five matches which is unusual for Manchester United, but the club are going through a transition. Regardless of their managerial situation, big questions will be raised if they don’t get into the Champions League, as the transition excuse is wearing thin with Manchester United fans. A lot was expected from Juan Mata after he joined the club, but the loss at Stoke shows he won’t solve all the problems at Old Trafford.
Their opponents, Fulham, sit bottom of them Premier League, four points off Crystal Palace in 17th. The gap is likely to grow and could get as high as seven, if Meulensteen’s men fail to take anything from this match. They can’t afford to drift too far from the bank of clubs ahead of them, especially with their unstable management situation. Meulensteen could find himself leaving before the end of the season if results don’t improve, which would be incredible considering he only came in earlier this season. He came into the club before Martin Jol left, while he could find himself losing his job in similar circumstances with Curbishley being linked to his job. Fulham have fell to seven defeats from their last nine matches, which is certainly relegation form. Their performance against Sheffield United in the FA Cup replay was very poor, and fans have little to be optimistic unless changes come soon, which is a possibility given their signings in January.
In their first meeting this season, Manchester United won 3-1 with Antonio Valencia, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney netting for the Champions, while Alexander Kačaniklić scored for Fulham. In the corresponding fixture last season, van Persie scored his first goal for the club, in a match that the Red Devils won 3-2. The other goal scorers for the home side that day were Shinji Kagawa and Rafael. Damien Duff netted for Fulham, while a Nemanja Vidic own goal also contributed to the away side’s tally.
Manchester United have lost five of their eight matches in all competitions in 2014. This is worrying for the club as they normally accelerate in the second half of the season, but they look like they’ll continue their poor form from the first five months.
Fulham haven’t kept a clean sheet for their last nine league matches and they still have the worst defensive record in the league, conceding 53 goals, 12 more than the next worse in Cardiff.
Robin van Persie
After missing large parts of this season, Robin van Persie is back and firing on all cylinders as shown by two goals since his return. In the past two years, the Dutchman has showed himself to be one of the best strikers in world football, so it’s a huge boost to have him back, especially with the added creativity of Juan Mata in the side. As the champions try and gain an unlikely qualification for next season’s Champions League, the striker is extremely key to their hopes. If he avoids injuries then they could triumph against the odds as he is certain to score goals after finishing as top scorer in the last two campaigns. He has scored nine goals so far this season which is impressive given his limited game time. His shooting accuracy (47%) and chance conversion (28%) are very good and up there with the best strikers in the league. Given Fulham have the worst defence in the league, van Persie could grab a few goals on Sunday.
Lewis Holtby will be central for Fulham in their relegation fight as his creativity could prove to be the difference in matches, especially against teams near the bottom of the table. He has big match experience with Tottenham and Germany so Old Trafford could be a stage that suits him, especially as the pressure if off him and his team-mates. He will be given the freedom to express himself without the expectancy of a result. On his Premier League debut for Fulham, he created three chances, if he keeps that up every game, the Fulham attackers will be given plenty of chances to score. Two of these chances were created from set pieces which he didn’t take many of at Tottenham. The new responsibility of being one of the key men at Fulham could see Holtby flourish in West London.
Phil Jones could be available after the injury he picked up at Stoke wasn’t as serious as first feared. In worse news for the champions, Johnny Evans was injured in the same match and is likely to miss this weekend’s fixture with a calf injury. Rio Ferdinad and Marouane Fellaini could feature as they move closer to a full recovery, but Nani is out long term.
Kieran Richardson could return to face his former club, while Sascha Riether could also be back from injury on Saturday. John Arne Riise is set to miss out though. Ryan Tunnicliffe and Larnell Cole could make their debuts for Fulham against the club they signed from, while Kostas Mitroglou is expected to make his first start in English football. Johnny Heitinga could also feature.
This is going to be a very comfortable victory for Manchester United. Fulham have been struggling since August and the managerial change has had little effect. The new signings are their last throw of the dice in their survival battle, but they will need time to gel. This match will be looked at as a bonus by Meulensteen as he knows it’s going to be a hard task for his side. David Moyes may have had a horrendous January, but this fixture gives him the perfect opportunity to get back to winning ways and with style too. Fulham fans will be hoping Meulensteen’s knowledge of the Manchester United side, that has hardly changed since he left, will play a part in the result, but I don’t expect it to.