The FA Cup returns to Old Trafford for the first time since March 2011, when an experimental United lineup including a midfield duo of John O’Shea and Darron Gibson overcame Arsenal in a 2-0 win. This time, Martin Jol will bring his Fulham side up, in search of cup success.
When Brede Hangeland headed Fulham into the 4th round, sabotaging Blackpool’s campaign in the process, it seemed an unspectacular match-up against Manchester United had been set up. The teams know each other well, play each other regularly, and have no particular rivalry. However, the return of one silky smooth Bulgarian adds a whole new emotional level to the fixture. Dimitar Berbatov was very much a mysterious figure during his period at United, operating under a dichotomy of the frustrating and the sublime. Whilst the ramifications of his exit have been somewhat subdued, thanks to the brilliance of Robin van Persie, there are still many who miss the sight of the haughty Bulgarian strutting across the Old Trafford turf. And even for his doubters, the 20 goal season and some magisterial performances, notably against Blackburn and Liverpool, will leave more than a smattering of happy memories. But after all the blissful nostalgia and amicable greetings, United will be hoping to control the game and continue on their path to a record 12th FA Cup crown.
Despite Manchester United’s historical success in the competition, FA Cup glory has been hard to come by in recent years. In two of the past three seasons, the Red Devils have failed to reach the last 16, with last year’s defeat to Liverpool especially ignominious. But their opposition this time round are hardly perennial winners. Fulham have lost seven of their last eight FA Cup fixtures against Premier League opposition and have lost the last ten in all competitions against Manchester United. Given recent Fulham form and their past deficiencies when faced by Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, the Cottagers will face a tough ask to progress in the competition. Having only notched two wins in normal time, three if you include the defeat of Blackpool, since the start of December in all competitions, a bright start for Berbatov’s new team has been dimmed drastically. They will not be helped by the fact that Kieran Richardson, a scorer against Blackpool, is doubtful because of a calf injury. New loan signing Emmanuel Frimpong is unlikely to make the line-up. For Manchester United, no sooner are some stars returning than others are being ruled out. Jonny Evans will continue his spell on the sidelines, along side Ashley Young who has picked up a knee injury. Nani and Anderson could return to the starting line up, whilst Van Persie could have earned a rest, after looking slightly fatigued against Spurs last weekend.
After last week’s wingerless affair, Fergie will probably field at least one wide man this time round, possibly in the form of ‘outcast’ Nani. The Portuguese made his return against West Ham but was largely disappointing, putting in a display that reminded us all of why he has often been dubbed ‘Ronaldo lite’, promising much then more often than not blazing a shot over the bar. However, we have to remember it was his first competitive match in a while and look to the occasional dangerous run and cross that he delivered. Nani, like Fulham man Berbatov, has polarised opinion, but given a first team run, he remains a very potent, effective and sometimes devastating winger. Nani will offer imagination and dynamism out wide, stretching the play, and hopefully giving another somewhat frustrating time and space to control the midfield. Anderson’s United career has been characterised by a repetitive and tiring cycle of average form, fine form, injury, return, average form, fine form, injury; repeat ad nauseum. Yet, his direct and tireless running often adds an extra dimension to Manchester United’s play, and he could take advantage of a somewhat static midfield two of Sidwell and Karagounis, with Bryan Ruiz unlikely to bother himself too much with defensive duties. Chicharito, a player, unlike Nani and Anderson, who has exceeded all expectations, could have a field day, using his pace to trouble the cumbersome Hangeland. If these three connect and play well, it will be difficult for Fulham to register anything of interest in this match. Berbatov and Ruiz, another luxurious, enigmatic and periodically brilliant player, will have to content themselves with feeding off scraps up front, which will not please either of the two. However, you can never rule out some moment of brilliance when these two are involved, and so the Unite back four will have to be conscious, especially if spaces begin to develop if United have to chase the game aggressively.
Due to Fulham’s lack of form, and their unthreatening midfield, there is little chance of them recreating the Dembele inspired performance we witnessed earlier in the season at Old Trafford, when the home side scraped through 3-2. As a result, with some trepidation, I will predict a straightforward 2-0 win, with a successful return for Anderson and an unspectacular afternoon for Nani.