LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 21: Antonio Valencia of Manchester United is challenged by Mousa Dembele of Fulham during the Barclays Premier League match between Fulham and Manchester United at Craven Cottage on December 21, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Nine league matches remain for Manchester United in their quest for title number 20. The next one up is on Monday night when they welcome Fulham FC to the 'Theatre of Dreams'. During the reverse fixture at Craven Cottage just prior to Christmas, the Red Devils demolished their hosts by a 5-0 scoreline. Many joined in on the goal-fest as Danny Welbeck, Nani, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, and Dimitar Berbatov each bagged a goal.
Form Guide: United's European form has obviously been disappointing (to say the least) but their recent domestic form has been superb. Sir Alex Ferguson's side is currently level on points with Manchester City at the top of the table. However, the champions have a game in hand after the 'noisy neighbours' dropped points yesterday during their 1-1 draw with Stoke City. United have gone nine league matches unbeaten with the only points dropped in that span being the three-goal deficit they valiantly fought back from versus Chelsea FC at Stamford Bridge. Their most recent match occurred last weekend when they defeated Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-5 at Molineux.
Team News: Darren Fletcher and captain Nemanja Vidic remain out due to a season ending illness and injury, respectively. Anderson, Nani, Michael Owen, and Anders Lindegaard are all nearing returns but each is still unavailable for Monday night. Phil Jones has recovered from illness and is available for selection. (Manchester United Team News Report)
Form Guide: Fulham currently sit 13th in the table with 36 points from 29 matches. Bar an unexpected disaster, the West Londoners appear safe from being relegated. After three successive victories against Stoke, Queens Park Rangers, and Wolves, the Cottagers followed those successes with defeats by Aston Villa and Swansea City.
United: David de Gea will be between the posts at Old Trafford while the first-choice pairing of Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand is expected at center-back. Patrice Evra will be at left-back while the likes of Rafael, Jones, and Chris Smalling are in contention at right-back. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes are probable in the center of the park but Giggs and Tom Cleverley are possible as well. Antonio Valencia is likely as the right-winger while Welbeck, Giggs, and Ashley Young are in contention for the left side of attack. Up front, Rooney will be partnered by either Welbeck or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito)
Fulham: Jol has deployed his side in an attack-oriented 4-4-2 as of late but the Dutch manager could opt for a slightly more conservative 4-4-1-1 at Old Trafford. Mark Schwarzer is Fulham's No. 1 while Brede Hangeland and Phillippe Senderos are the expected center-back pairing. John Arne Riise is first-choice at left-back while Stephen Kelly is probable at right-back. Aaron Hughes could be in contention at either center-back or right-back. Moussa Dembele is nearly certain to start and it could either be in a midfield duo or 'in the hole' role behind a lead striker. Danny Murphy, Mahamadou Diarra, and Dickson Etuhu are possible as well in midfield. Clint Dempsey will cut in from the left flank while either Bryan Ruiz or Damien Duff will be the right-sided attacker. Pavel Pogrebnyak will start up front and if he has a partner, it will likely be Andy Johnson. Ruiz is a candidate to play 'in the hole' as well if Fulham are in a 4-4-1-1.
* Can Fulham find balance in midfield?: As previously mentioned, Jol has deployed his side in a very attack-oriented manner as of late. The skilled Dembele and Murphy -- both of which are more creators and distributors rather than ball-winners -- have been playing in the center of the park behind the attacking front four. Perhaps feeling vulnerable, Jol elected to use Diarra last weekend alongside Dembele but this failed to provide the necessary defensive bite against Swansea. Will the Fulham manager decide to have a go at Old Trafford by fielding Dembele and Murphy together in the middle? If so, will United simply overrun them? Or will Jol decide to play his side in a 4-4-1-1 shape so that there is a bit balance to his side? Will Jol even have much of a choice?.... The Cottagers don't seem to have a suitable defensive-midfielder.
* Fluid front four movement by United: Fergie's side had an incredible goalscoring rate in the season's beginning but they were too open in the back. After grinding out results in November and December by keeping it tight in the back, United appear to have finally found a balance themselves between defending and attacking. United generally deploy two relatively-deep central-midfielders that provide structure and tidy distribution while the attack is mostly left to the front four. After United's 5-0 defeat of Fulham in late December, Giggs had this to say about the midfield and attack that day:
"For myself and Michael Carrick in midfield, the movement in front of us was brilliant. Obviously the defending was good as well. But when you have so many options on the ball – people running in behind, people dropping in the hole – we’re a very difficult team to play."
Giggs' concise quote really tells it all. With the likes of Scholes, Carrick, or Giggs in central-midfield, the supply for the attack will be there. The movement of of Welbeck, Rooney, and Young is terrific and vital in creating goalscoring chances for United. Valencia can provide balance in attack and stretch the opposition -- so that gaps widen for the quick one-touching passing of the other attackers -- by providing a direct option while hugging the right touchline. These combinations are key to the United attack.
* Fulham's narrow attack: No other side in the Premier League plays through the middle of the pitch like Fulham does. The 38% they spend attacking in this space leads the league by 4%. This is because their biggest attacking threat -- Clint Dempsey (12 goals and 4 assists in league) -- comes inside and roams the space between the lines. In addition, Ruiz tends to cut inside onto his stronger left-foot when he is deployed as the wide right player. United will have to be wary when they defend the space between the lines because this is where the genesis of goalscoring chances generally occurs for Fulham's attack. If this space can be cut out -- or if United can cut off the supply to these Fulham attackers -- then the away side's attack can be suffocated. United will need to keep compact and narrow in the back.
KO: 8:00pm GMT, 3:00pm EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: Sky Sports (U.K.), ESPN2 (U.S.A.)
Referee: Michael Oliver
Odds: Manchester United 2/9, Draw 9/2, Fulham 14/1
TBB prediction: I'm going more bold than usual... United 4-0 Fulham (the goal differential with City is made up)