Fresh from their Champions League triumph over Chelsea, Manchester United return to the business of the Premier League against Fulham on Saturday.The Red Devils are within grasping distance of their 19th league title after Arsenal gifted them an eight-point buffer at the top of the table, and it seems Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have timed their run-in to perfection.
Wayne Rooney in particular is in sterling form with eight goals in his last eight league appearances – a far cry from his early-season struggles.
But none of that will matter, as the 25-year-old is unavailable due to his bizarre behaviour against West Ham United last weekend.
Rooney unleashed a curse-laden tirade at television cameras following his hat-trick goal and was subsequently slapped with a two-game ban – upheld on appeal – by the Football Association.
It is a shame for United as Rooney’s boots are still smoking after his winner in the Red Devils’ 1-0 Champions League defeat of Chelsea on Wednesday.
But if Fulham think they will be facing a toothless opponent at Old Trafford then they are clearly delusional, given United still boat the league’s top-scorer Dimitar Berbatov (20 goals) and the mercurial Javier Hernandez (11 goals).
Despite denials to the contrary, it would appear United boss Ferguson has primed his troops for a run at the treble. It would be foolhardy to think the Cottagers can get in the way of that.
Mark Hughes’ men are sitting mid-table with 38 points after 31 games, three points shy of seventh-placed Everton but only four points clear of Aston Villa in 16th.
Their form has been solid but not extraordinary – a 3-0 win over Blackpool, a 2-1 loss at Everton, a 3-2 win over Blackburn, a 1-1 draw at Manchester City.
If they have a spark it is United States international Clint Dempsey, whose 10 goals this season have often proved the difference between taking points and dropping them.
But it is Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer who will need to be at his best this week, as the chances will flow thick and fast on Saturday.
Looking at injuries, Fulham defender Aaron Hughes is expected to play despite taking a knock to the head against Blackpool.
Steve Sidwell, who signed from Aston Villa in January, got his first run-on as a substitute against the Seasiders and could find himself with a role in Hughes’ starting XI.
For United, midfielder Anderson is probably still a week away from resuming league duties after suffering a knee injury in February, while the match has also come too soon for Darren Fletcher (virus) and John O’Shea (hamstring).