Ahead of the biggest week of the season since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival at Old Trafford, Manchester United try to avoid looking past relegation-threatened Fulham at Craven Cottage on Saturday as they continue their push for a top-four spot.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
United (14-6-5) are still unbeaten since Solskjaer’s debut in late December, winning nine and drawing one in all competitions. They grafted to another three points last weekend, riding a ninth-minute goal from Marcus Rashford to a 1-0 win at Leicester City on Sunday.
It was the sixth goal in eight league matches for Rashford, who is tied for third on the team with nine goals in all competitions behind Anthony Martial (11) and Paul Pogba (10) – with the latter setting up Rashford’s goal with a well-weighted lob.
“(It) was a different kind of game,” Rashford told United’s official website. “I think it had different challenges but you know it’s very difficult, so to get the win is very good.
“It (the winning feeling) has huge importance, but for us we’re looking at blocks of work and we just keep trying to improve ourselves. The last result (against Burnley) wasn’t what we wanted, so we had to improve and we did that today.”
While Solskjaer has done a good job rotating his players, getting through this match without injury is vital. United host French side Paris-Saint Germain in the first leg of their round of 16 Champions League tie Tuesday and then face Chelsea on Feb. 18 at Stamford Bridge in a fifth-round FA Cup clash.
The former United striker-turned-manager is also a step closer to having all of his first-choice defenders available. Centre back Chris Smalling has been practicing with the first team and is the last of the regulars yet to play for Solskjaer since he took over, having suffered a foot injury in the reverse fixture – a 4-1 United victory Dec. 8.
Phil Jones and Victor Lindelof have been Solskjaer’s usual pairing in central defence, though Eric Bailly has started in two of United’s last three contests. United have won five on the bounce in all road competitions, their longest such streak outside Old Trafford since a six-game run from April 11-May 24, 2009.
Fulham (4-5-16) continue to wallow among the bottom three, six points better than last-place Huddersfield Town but also eight from passing Burnley to safety. The Cottagers’ minus-30 goal difference is worse than everyone but the Terriers, and they have lost four of their last five in league play after a listless 2-0 defeat at Crystal Palace last weekend.
Cyrus Christie’s handball in the penalty area – equal parts unlucky but fair – led to Palace’s first goal from the spot, and the Cottagers failed to generate much hunting an equaliser before conceding a second three minutes from time. Fulham were also left to rue a missed open header by Aleksander Mitrovic that could have opened the scoring and led to a different outcome.
“The job is different, but also in the same club it’s different,” Cottagers boss Claudio Ranieri said at his Thursday press conference. “We know where we are, we know it’s very tough and then we need soldiers who have to fight until the end. That’s my philosophy, we play against a big team who are looking to achieve Champions League but we are ready to fight.”
After a summer spending spree of £100 million following promotion from the Championship for previous manager Slavia Jokanovic, Fulham owner Shahid Khan opened the purse strings in the January window for Ranieri as the Cottagers took in Lazar Markovic and Havard Nordtveit on loans from Liverpool and TSG Hoffenheim 1899, respectively.
Both could be in line for a debut in this match, perhaps more so Nordtveit considering Ranieri has swapped out centre back Tim Ream early in each of Fulham’s last two matches. Fellow centre back Timothy Fosu-Mensah is not eligible to play against his parent club per loan rules.
United took care of business early in their December win, with Rashford setting up goals by Ashley Young and Juan Mata in the first half-hour before Romelu Lukaku added a third on 42 minutes. Since-departed Aboubakar Kamara pulled one back for Fulham from the spot, but Rashford restored the three-goal margin with a late fourth.
United are 9-2-0 in all competitions against Fulham since a 3-0 loss at Craven Cottage in 2009 and have won three on the trot there in league play.
Per Bet365, Manchester United are 4/7 favourites to do the double while Fulham are 9/2 underdogs to pick up a sorely needed three points in their relegation fight. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 3/1.
Unsurprisingly, oddsmakers are expecting a glut of goals at Craven Cottage, with 8/13 odds on more than 2.5 goals scored compared to 13/10 for under that threshold. They are somewhat surprisingly also expecting both teams to score, offering 4/6 odds for both teams to move the scoreboard off “0” compared to 11/10 for at least one clean sheet.
Despite being on the road, Manchester United players occupy the first five slots for opening goal-scorers, starting with Lukaku (4/1) and progressing to Rashford (9/2) before Pogba, Sanchez, and Martial all chime in at 5/1. Mitrovic is the first option among Whites players at 7/1, with wingers Andre Schurrle, Luciano Vietto, and Ryan Babel all 11/1 options. Slotted among them are United wingers Jesse Lingard (15/2) and Mata (11/1).
Lukaku is just off even money as he leads the line at 21/20 odds, and Rashford is right behind him at 6/5. Pogba, Sanchez, and Martial are again lumped together — this time at 11/8 — and Mitrovic is a 2/1 pick for a goal over 90 minutes. Lingard is a 21/10 option while Babel, Mata, Vietto, and Schurrle are all 10/3 choices.
It is a simple mission for Manchester United — do all the meaningful work in the first hour of the match. That way Solskjaer has the opportunity to remove his attacking players in the final half-hour since every bit of recovery time is going to matter ahead of Tuesday’s home encounter with Paris-Saint Germain.
It would not be surprising if Solskjaer holds out either Lukaku or Rashford from the starting XI given he has started them together just once since Lukaku returned from compassionate leave. The bottom line is regardless of who Solskjaer’s four attacking players are regardless of 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 set-up, United are at an advantage against a beleaguered Fulham defence that have shipped a league-worst 55 goals.
And while Mitrovic is a handful, the chance to hold out Nemanja Matic ahead of what will be a vaunted PSG attack is one Solskjaer would be wise to take, as would the possibility of giving Ashley Young a breather and giving Diogo Dalot a run out at right back. It also would not be very surprising to see Mata over Pogba, but there has to be a semblance of ball control for United, and Pogba is still playing too well to disrupt his rhythm.
On the Fulham side, the decision to start in a 3-4-3 only for Ranieri to sacrifice Ream and switch to a four-man back continues to be puzzling. His talk Thursday of Sessegnon about the young starlet needing to play meaner in the Premier League sparks enough speculation to believe he will be on the left flank for this match, with Babel switched over to the right.
Markovic is the more likely of the two new signings to make the 18-man lineup for this match, but Nordtveit would be a more likely substitute given Fulham’s struggles on defence.
The key for this will be the first half-hour. If the Cottagers can stay level or perhaps steal a lead, they could snatch a vital point. Otherwise, the status quo likely will continue here — United continue putting pressure on Chelsea for fourth, and Fulham are another match closer to the drop.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Fulham 0, Manchester United 3.