The last time Jose Mourinho and Claudio Ranieri’s sides met in the Premier League, Leicester City’s win over Chelsea started an irreversible spiral that led to Mourinho leaving the London side not even halfway through their title defence and served as the impetus for the Foxes’ stirring run to the title.
This time around, Ranieri will be happy just to navigate Fulham out of the drop, while more dropped points could lead to a more tenuous situation for Mourinho at Man United on Saturday when the teams collide at Old Trafford.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
In December 2015, Ranieri’s burgeoning Leicester City hosted the Pensioners. The Foxes had recorded 32 points from 15 matches but yet to beat one of the “Big Six,” while defending champions Chelsea were inconsistent from match to match and had already fallen 17 points behind the Midlands club as Mourinho brooded and stewed, his frustration at a boiling point.
It finally tipped as goals by Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez – the driving forces of that Foxes side – powered a 2-1 win. Mourinho seethed publicly at his players after the match, saying they “betrayed” his game plan and blasted their lack of work ethic. Ranieri – once mocked by Mourinho’s “Zeru Tituli” label of him – would lift the Premier League trophy at season’s end.
Mourinho would leave Chelsea for a second time three days after that loss, a third-year exit that may find history repeating itself at Manchester United. The bad blood between the two has long passed with Ranieri, ever the genial gentleman, gracious in his words ahead of this contest.
“Jose is a fantastic man, very polite,” Ranieri told the club’s official website. “He was the first to send me a message to say ‘welcome back.’ He’s a friend. I’ve known him for a long time, when he came to Chelsea, when he moved to Italy. He was very polite with me in every moment.
“He is a very great man, coach, manager, and also is very important for football.”
United (6-5-4) are in eighth place, trailing Everton and Bournemouth on goal difference, and eight points adrift of Chelsea for fourth. Mourinho’s side have drawn their last three league matches, the last two 2-2 stalemates versus relegation-threatened Southampton and a revived Arsenal.
Once more, Manchester United had to fight back from a losing position, though it took them only a combined five minutes to erase the one-goal deficits Arsenal put them in. Jesse Lingard’s first United goal in any competition this season in the 69th minute – came almost straightaway after an own goal by Marcus Rojo – and provided a split of the points in an entertaining yet scruffy encounter.
Mourinho has projected many moods this season as United have ebbed and flowed over series of matches as well as a single 90-minute contest, but the one that came from Wednesday’s contest was – for him – oddly typical: Frustration about the result but heartened by his team’s will.
“The result is not the result we want, but what can you say,” he said post-match. “Fantastic spirit, fantastic commitment, great intensity, great dynamic, happiness to give absolutely everything, people exhausted at the end of the game, lots of players in difficult circumstances.
“It’s a positive sign (that the players sacrificed themselves), but there are things I cannot get from them and I cannot say much more than this. But they showed a big soul, everybody gave everything. That is for sure and it is a positive feeling. I cannot tell you much more.”
Mourinho made seven changes to his starting XI from the draw at Southampton, with 19-year-old Diogo Dalot thrown into the fire at right back in making his first Premier League start. It was also the first action of any sort for Rojo, while Eric Bailly made a return after not playing the previous nine matches following his hook on 19 minutes in United’s comeback win over Newcastle United.
Injuries have made United’s backline fluid on a match-to-match basis for Mourinho, who will at least have right back Ashley Young available as he returns following his one-match ban for yellow card accumulation. If Luke Shaw has not recovered from the knock that kept him out of Wednesday’s match, Dalot could be flipped to left back, or Young could start there.
It is unknown if Phil Jones will be available after missing the last contest through injury, and Mourinho said Chris Smalling played through a knock himself.
The injury bug, though, has also spread up front as Anthony Martial was taken off just after the hour due to a balky hamstring. The pacey winger picked up his seventh league goal in just nine matches to mark his 23rd birthday and is likely not available for this match. With Alexis Sanchez also sidelined by the same problem, Mourinho’s front three could comprise of Markus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku and Lingard.
Last, but certainly not least, Paul Pogba could get a start in midfield after his 15-minute runout versus Arsenal off the bench. Mourinho dropped the France international after a sloppy effort against Southampton, with rumours persisting about a falling out between the two after the manager reportedly told Pogba he was like “a virus” for his poor play.
Amid United’s three-ring circus enter Fulham, who have taken four points from Ranieri’s three matches in charge. The Cottagers (2-3-10) are at the foot of the table but only trailing Southampton and Burnley on goal difference. More importantly, a win – how ever unlikely – could lift them out of the drop.
Fulham played Leicester City to a 1-1 draw Wednesday, with Aboubakar Kamara’s goal on 42 minutes for Ranieri’s side canceled out by one from James Maddison 16 minutes from time. The Cottagers are the only team in the Premier League without a clean sheet, yet Ranieri is trying to emphasise the positives with his players as they try to climb out of the bottom three.
“I think if you observe the three matches, we improved a little more, a little more, a little more,” Ranieri said. “I know there is a lot more work to do, but we’re in a good way. It’s not easy because when you stay at the bottom of the table, the confidence is not 100 per cent.
“I try to give my confidence to my players. Of course, when you have two or three good results, the confidence grows immediately. For this reason, we must be satisfied. Three matches, four points – that’s good.”
Ranieri has been experimenting up front trying to find a way to further help Aleksander Mitrovic, the team’s top goal-scorer with seven goals in all competitions. The Serbia international picked up his second assist on Kamara’s goal, and right now it appears midfielder Tom Cairney is best suited to play off Mitrovic, while Ryan Sessegnon is being played more forward.
United are unbeaten in their last 10 matches (8-2-0) in all competitions versus Fulham and 11 (10-1-0) at home. The Cottagers’ lone league win at The Theatre of Dreams in the Premier League era in 13 tries (1-1-11) was a 3-1 victory in 2003.
Per Bet365, United are still heavy 1/3 favourites to claim all three points despite their spate of injuries, while the Cottagers are 9/1 underdogs to claim just their second Premier League-era win at Old Trafford. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 19/4.
Oddsmakers are rightfully expecting goals in this contest, with 4/7 odds on the teams clearing 2.5 goals while 11/8 is the posting for a contest with zero to two goals. They are, however, torn on whether both teams will score — there are 10/11 odds in both directions for no clean sheets or a minimum of one.
Lukaku tops a list of six United players to open the scoring, with the Belgium international a 7/2 favourite. Martial is at 4/1 despite his injury, while Pogba — United’s desginated penalty taker while playing — and Rashford are 9/2. Lingard (7/1) and Juan Mata (8/1) also get play above Mitrovic, Fulham’s top option with 10/1 odds to give the visitors an 0-1 advantage.
Lukaku is also better than even money to score during the match at 5/6 odds, with Martial at even money. Rashford and Pogba are just off that standard at 11/10, while Lingard has 15/8 odds on scoring in back-to-back matches for United. Mitrovic is an 11/4 selection for the Cottagers, with teammates Kamara, Andre Schurrle and Luciano Vietto all getting 9/2 odds to bag one over the 90 minutes.
After three matches, there are some things that can be gleaned from Ranieri’s presence. The most immediate one is there looks to be an on-field organisation of the players on the pitch and defined roles beyond the back four. While Fulham have yet to record a clean sheet on the season, there was a semblance of a drilled side before being caught out by Maddison and Leicester City.
But the focus is on Manchester United and Mourinho, who could put any combination of 11 players out there at this point due to injuries and decisions, and it really would not surprise too many people. The most curious of those United players not seeing any action of late is Fred, United’s marquee summer signing at a price tag of £47 million. The Brasil international and midfielder has not played since Nov. 3 against Bournemouth, and while Herrera has come on strong of late and warrants both his spot in the starting XI and his playing time, there is still a surprise that he has not been able to crack into the rotation.
Up front, Rashford is coming off one of his better games. If he can string some of these performances together — something Martial has done despite Mourinho’s lack of pattern regarding the France international’s starts, it is possible United can kick on to the next level everyone expects of them and make a run at a top-four spot.
Lingard and Lukaku may be the swing votes in this match given Fulham’s leaky back line. His industry is never in question, but United need results as the December fixtures come thick and fast. Mourinho’s team have played well in fits and spurts, and do not seem to respond until getting punched in the mouth. This is another such match where United can get one or three points in such scenarios, but the preference would be a straightforward win at Old Trafford.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 2, Fulham 1.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 16 PREVIEWS
Chelsea (9-4-2) vs. Manchester City (13-2-0)
Leicester City (6-4-5) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (11-0-4)
Newcastle United (3-4-8) vs. Wolverhampton (5-4-6)
Everton (6-5-4) vs. Watford (6-2-7)