53 min: The home fans belt out a chorus of “You don’t know what you’re doing” as Ranieri sends on Christie … but hooks Schurrle, one of Fulham’s better players this afternoon.
52 min: Mitrovic tees up Chambers, 25 yards from goal. Chambers shoots, but falls backwards while doing it. The ball sails harmlessly over the bar.
51 min: Pogba and Mata make a nuisance of themselves down the inside-left channel. Martial takes up possession and nearly dribbles his way into space, but there’s no room in the area and the ball breaks through to Sergio Rico.
50 min: United assumed a quiet control of this match. They’re quite happy to let Fulham ping it around the middle of the park, because the hosts are going nowhere. United conserving energy and happy to play on the break.
48 min: A little bit of space for Schurrle out on the right. He clips a long diagonal ball towards the near post. There’s nobody there. De Gea calmly watches it sail behind for a goal kick.
46 min: United are immediately up in Fulham’s grille. Pogba chips down the right to tee up Martial, but instead of shooting from a tight angle lays off to Mata … who shoots from a tight angle. That’s blocked. Then Herrera has a couple of weak attempts from 20 yards. Fulham are a right old state at the back, like that’s a piece of breaking news.
United get the second half underway. No half-time changes. Now, Fulham were two goals adrift at half-time in their last game at Craven Cottage, too, but came back to win 4-2. It was some story when they did that to Brighton & Hove Albion; it’ll be a tale for the ages if they replicate the feat today.
HALF TIME: Fulham 0-2 Manchester United
There’s time for one more Martial run down the left, but for once Odoi sticks with him and the ball ends up trundling into the arms of Sergio Rico. Then de Gea flaps at a Schurrle cross from the right, and there’s calls for a penalty as Jones clears, but it hit the big lad’s chest. And that’s the end of an entertaining first half. Fulham have been lively, but United’s quality at the sharp end has been the difference. Anthony Martial has been sensational.
45 min: Odoi curls one in from the right. Mitrovic tries to spin Smalling, but the United defender isn’t having it, outmuscling the striker before clearing.
44 min: From the resulting free kick, the ball drops to Chambers to the right of the D. He attempts to Le Tissier an insouciant volley into the bottom right, but his dipping shot is well snaffled by the safe hands of de Gea.
43 min: But now he’s in the book for barging into the same player’s back. He can have no complaints, and to be fair doesn’t bother making any.
42 min: Matic sticks his arm across Babel, who was trying to zip down the left, and is fortunate to escape censure.
40 min: Martial causes all manner of bother down the left again. He’s got Odoi on toast. He looks for the top right, but the ball deflects out for United’s first corner of the match. The ball’s hit long. Martial reaches the byline on the left, and pulls back for Lukaku, who cocks his leg to shoot but fresh-airs it. The ball breaks to Jones on the edge of the area; the big defender creams a glorious shot inches over the bar, tipped away by the fingertips of Sergio Rico. Nowt happens from the second corner.
38 min: Chambers is booked for standing on Smalling’s extended leg in a 50-50 on the edge of the United area. It’s clumsy at best; players have seen red for less. Thankfully Smalling is quickly up and about again.
36 min: Herrera slips as he goes into a 50-50 challenge with Ream, and comes off second best. He’ll be OK to continue, and he’s rather fortunately won a free kick out of sympathy. Nothing comes of it, even though United load the box, which is probably the best thing for karmic balance.
35 min: Chambers creams a long ball down the middle, but there’s only Schurrle there. Smalling and Jones are always shepherding that one back through to de Gea.
33 min: Well, we say nothing comes of it … but United nearly score a third. United scamper up the other end on the counter. Herrera slips a pass into the Fulham box from the right, Pogba having broken clear down that channel. Pogba briefly thinks about a first-time lash from a tight angle on the right this time, but hesitates slightly and is eventually crowded out.
32 min: Bryan hooks it into the mixer. United half clear, and Seri returns it, with a view to scoring in the top-right corner. A deflection sees the ball go out for a corner on the right, from which nothing comes.
31 min: Herrera gets a bit too close to Mitrovic, the pair tussling 35 yards from the United goal, and that’s a free kick to Fulham, just to the left of centre. A chance to load the box.
30 min: Vietto battles well to bring down a long pass on the left-hand corner of the United box. But a ball rolled across the face of the area evades Mitrovic, and the crowd allow themselves a wee groan in frustration.
28 min: Schurrle and Babel are still probing away, both busy as ever. Nothing’s quite working for them, though. Babel drops deep, and tries to slip Vietto free down the inside-left channel. There’s a huge gap in the United defence, but the pass is way too strong, and the opportunity is wasted.
25 min: Why on earth was Jose Mourinho trying to bundle Martial out of the door? It’s staggering. In the meantime, Fulham are struggling to clear their heads after that quick United double. Bryan goes sliding in late on Smalling, and he becomes the first booking of the afternoon.
GOAL! Fulham 0-2 Manchester United (Martial 23)
This is a truly sensational goal! Martial picks up possession on the halfway line, and bursts down the right. He’s got the legs on Odoi, who is burned off quickly enough. Then he drifts inside, briefly shows the ball to Le Marchand, and then breezes off down the channel with it, another defender left behind. He’s clear in the area. He opens his body and sends a low curler into the bottom right. Sergio Rico had no chance whatsoever with that one!
22 min: Matic drives down the middle, and it nearly opens up for him. Just as he thinks about a shot from distance, Seri smothers him. Just in time.
20 min: De Gea is fine to continue. Meanwhile Fulham have responded well to falling behind, in terms of territory at least, though United are holding firm on the edge of their own box. No way through. Odoi tries to burst clear down the right, but Martial comes back to lend his defenders a hand, and eases the Fulham right-back away from the danger zone.
18 min: That was Pogba’s seventh goal in his last eight Premier League outings, by the way. It was some effort, though whenever a keeper’s beaten from a tight angle at his near post, there’ll be questions. It wasn’t top-drawer netminding, granted, but the ferocity of Pogba’s shot, added to the element of surprise, surely limits any criticism. It was a hell of a strike. Accentuate the positive.
16 min: So much for Fulham’s fast start! Mitrovic chases after a long ball but only manages to clatter into de Gea. The United keeper’s down, receiving treatment.
GOAL! Fulham 0-1 Manchester United (Pogba 14)
After a rocky start, United begin to assert control. Martial has another run at Odoi, but can’t find anyone in the middle. And then: bang! Another phase of attack, and Pogba is slipped in down the left. He’s faced with a tight angle, but lashes an outstanding first-time shot past Sergio Rico, beating the keeper at his near post! That was a real whipcracker!
13 min: Matic is down, having taken a couple of his former Chelsea team-mate Schurrle’s studs on his knee. For a second, he looks in some distress, but the big man gets up again quickly enough, albeit gingerly.
11 min: United are looking for Martial down the left every time. The winger appears to have the beating of Odoi, but he’s not received a particularly inviting pass yet.
9 min: Fulham will be extremely happy with this start. Nearly half of the match so far has been played in United’s final third.
7 min: Herrera sends a witless ball forward to nobody, full of panic amid the Fulham press. But Le Marchand, wandering upfield having taken up easy possession, runs into Lukaku. Suddenly Martial and Pogba are tearing down the inside-left channel. Pogba enters the box, tussles with the recovering Le Marchand, and the pair fall limply to the ground. A half-arsed shout for a penalty, but it was 50-50 and United are never getting that.
5 min: Now Schurrle sends a speculative effort over the crossbar! Setting aside the small matter of actually getting an attempt on target, Fulham have looked extremely dangerous in these opening exchanges.
4 min: And once again Fulham cause United a whole world of problems. Babel dribbles down the left and feeds Bryan on the overlap. Bryan finds Mitrovic at the far post, but the big striker can only head across the face of goal from close range. Shaw prods a clearance straight to Schurrle, who leans back and blazes over from the penalty spot.
3 min: More good work by Schurrle, who nearly breaks clear down the right. But Shaw does enough to block, and it’s a goal kick.
1 min: What a start to this game! First up, Dalot was fouled down the United right. From the free kick, Pogba fluffed a header from eight yards. Fulham broke upfield through Schurrle down the right. With United having committed everyone up for the free kick, they’re light at the back. Schurrle wedges across to Vietto, on the left-hand corner of the six-yard box. He’s free, but scuffs his first-time shot wide, his body shape all wrong. What a chance that was for an early shock!
And we’re off! Fulham get the ball rolling. Incidentally, before kick-off, there was a moment’s applause in loving memory of Emiliano Sala.
The teams are out! A marvellous atmosphere at one of the prettiest grounds in the country. Fulham are in their storied white-and-black garb, while United wear … we’ve already covered this. “Agree that the gear looks good on the tiling,” begins John O’Donovan. “Do you reckon they wear brand new stuff every time? Or is there a chance to wear things in? If I get a new t-shirt I’m not comfortable till I’ve cut the tags off and worn it in a few times. Must be weird being box-fresh all the time.” I guess as professional sports stars they’ve long become used to their entire lives being box-fresh. A bit like that old Billy Connolly line about the Queen assuming the whole world smells of fresh paint, because there’s always someone ten feet ahead of her frantically tarting the place up for her arrival.
Claudio talks to Sky! “They can change eight, 11 changes, anything on the pitch. They have a lot of champions. But we are ready for the battle, to try to show our football. I hope we can make our fans happy at the end of the match. Schurrle gives us experience and intelligence. We have to move the ball quickly, and forward. We have to be compact and press. We have to be calm, very fast and quick!”
A quick peek behind the scenes. And you have to say that United’s gear pairs well with the tiling at Craven Cottage. A slight shame about those bottles of squash, sitting there all orange, yellow and purple. An isotonic blight on an otherwise very satisfying composition.
Ole speaks to his old team-mate Gary Neville on Sky. “A couple of changes had to be made. Marcus Rashford has had a dead leg against Leicester, Victor Lindelof is a slight concern but hopefully he’ll be OK for Tuesday. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones did really well against Aleksandar Mitrovic last time, and we felt this is going to be a fight in the box with him so we put them in there. When we came in, we were way behind top four. So if you get the chance to take the three points and jump in, see what happens with City and Chelsea tomorrow, it’s an important game for us today. We have to stand up and be resilient, it will be tough today. There is no complacency. There is no secret to playing football: you have to enjoy yourself, and you need good players that are able to express themselves. Work hard, stay together. It’s simple.” It’s a simple set-up for the self-aware Neville, who cracks wise that “it wasn’t simple for me at Valencia when I tried that!” Hearty laughs and slaps on the back, and the old pals are off their separate ways.
Both teams have had a nice week off to relax and recuperate. Fulham come off the back of a 2-0 loss at Crystal Palace, and make two changes to the team named for that one. Luciano Vietto and Andre Schurrle take the places of Tom Cairney and Cyrus Christie, both of whom drop to the bench.
Manchester United make six changes to the team selected for the 1-0 victory at Leicester City, with PSG on Tuesday night no doubt in mind. Diogo Dalot, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Juan Mata, Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial are in; Ashley Young, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Jesse Lingard, Alexis Sanchez and Marcus Rashford step down.
Fulham: Sergio Rico, Odoi, Le Marchand, Ream, Bryan, Chambers, Seri, Babel, Schurrle, Vietto, Mitrovic.
Subs: Ryan Sessegnon, Kebano, Cairney, Ayite, Christie, Zambo, Ramirez.
Manchester United: de Gea, Dalot, Smalling, Jones, Shaw, Herrera, Matic, Pogba, Mata, Lukaku, Martial.
Subs: Bailly, Sanchez, Rashford, Lingard, Young, Romero, McTominay.
Referee: Paul Tierney (Lancashire).
This is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 11th match as interim manager of Manchester United Football Club. So far during his astonishing reign, United have won nine games, and staged a late two-goal comeback in the other fixture played. It’s fair to say they’re on a roll; relegation haunted Fulham, who have lost four of their last five Premier League matches, have it all to do this lunchtime.
As if current form doesn’t paint a bad enough picture for the Cottagers, the head-to-head record is an appalling sight as well. They’ve lost eight of their last nine matches against United to an aggregate score of 25-7. In the Premier League era, they’ve lost 19 times to the Red Devils, winning just the three. They’ve already been whacked 4-1 by them this season, and that was when the shackles were very much still on, during the miserablist reign of Jose Mourinho.
None of this bodes well for Fulham. But then nobody expected Burnley to get so much as a point at Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago, and look what happened there. Claudio Ranieri’s side may be 19th in the table, seven points adrift of safety, but their recent home form offers a little hope: they’ve won two of their last three in the Premier League, and the other match was a tussle with another in-form top-six team, Tottenham, lost only in the final minute.
But United will be strong favourites to continue their assault on the Champions League places. Another Ole-inspired win here will take them ahead of Chelsea and into the top four, at least for a day. Who’d have thought that was achievable a couple of months ago?! Any sort of result for Fulham would feel even more precious, given their predicament. Here’s to a tantalising tussle on the Thames. It’s on!
Kick off: 12.30pm GMT.