Desperate for different reasons, both Manchester United and Fulham are in need of all three points in Sunday's match at Old Trafford. It's been a disappointing season for both clubs, although the Red Devils' "disappointment" would be snatched at with both hands by a Fulham side starved of anything resembling success this campaign.
In the reverse fixture at the beginning of November, the storyline was somewhat the same. Both David Moyes and Martin Jol were under fire for the underwhelming performances of their charges and both sides were in need of a victory to kick start their inconsistent seasons. United ran out 3-1 victors that day, but have remained in inconsistent form, while Fulham have continued to languish in the dead men walking end of the table.
With Fulham's nearest rivals in the relegation scrap set to play very winnable matches at the weekend and with the club two points adrift in twentieth position, a win, or even a draw, would be valuable succor to the Cottagers. Manchester United, on the other hand, desperately need three points in order to stay in touch with the Champions League places and maintain any hopes of signing the likes of Edinson Cavani, with whom they've been linked for a summer move from Paris Saint-Germain.
A number of Premier League strugglers, most recently Stoke City, have found matches against Manchester United a soothing balm for their poor form, and David Moyes will be without utility man Phil Jones and center back Jonny Evans, although Marouane Fellaini could be back in the mix after a long term injury.
Rene Meulensteen's injury concerns are limited to minor knocks to both Kieran Richardson and Sascha Riether, who should both be available for selection. Of more pressing concern to the Fulham gaffer is how best to integrate new boys Kostas Mitroglou, Lewis Holtby, William Kvist, and Johnny Heitinga, the recent marquee transfers tasked with no less a formidable challenge than keeping Fulham in the Premier League. New players, no matter their class and pedigree, need time to settle in, and time is something Fulham simply do not have. All four players must hit the ground running if Fulham are to survive. Lewis Holtby and William Kvist had encouraging debuts in last weekend's loss to Southampton, and Fulham fans will be hoping they can continue along that path and drag Mitroglou and Heitinga with them.
Of particular concern is where to play Johnny Heitinga. Given that he's not played regular matches in some time, it would makes sense for him to begin on the bench, but he was seemingly signed to help shore up Fulham's generous back line. Dan Burn has looked excellent if overwhelmed at times, and Brede Hangeland, although he's struggled with injury and form this season, is the sort of name it would be difficult to drop. Who makes way?
Given Manchester United's issues in defense and the Cottagers' own penchant for leaking goals, Fulham's best hope may well be a purposeful attacking game designed to limit Juan Mata, Robin Van Persie, and Wayne Rooney from getting too much time on the ball in dangerous areas. Rene Meulensteen has often opted of late to field a 4-2-3-1 formation, but by insisting on playing with inverted wingers, the side's attacking spear has been decidedly blunt and predictable. With Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker among Fulham's most consistently decent players this season, and with the signing of Kvist, perhaps a 4-3-3 formation designing to congest United's very un-United central midfield could be the order of the day.
I suspect, however, that Meulensteen will stick with his favored 4-2-3-1, opting to keep Steve Sidwell in reserve to relieve either Parker or Kvist as the match wears on. Hopefully, if Meulensteen does field this formation, the likes of Ashkan Dejagah and Alexander Kacaniklic are utilized to create width for Holtby to operate underneath Mitroglou and also to provide service to the Greek big man.
Regardless the system and personnel selected, Fulham's rough road to survival begins Sunday. To extend the metaphor further, the club is currently a beaten and battered Land Rover, albeit fresh off a visit to the mechanic, and hopefully the new winch, transmission, and differential can negotiate the massive, washed out pothole that Old Trafford can be. Fulham supporters need to stop haggling about the gear selected and the identity of our Stig (and how maybe he should be fired) and be prepared to get out and push. Sorry to go all Top Gear on you.