We caught up with The Athletic’s Fulham correspondent Peter Rutzler ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final.
Fulham are enjoying a strong season domestically and look set to push for one of the European spots at the end of the season. Marco Silva’s side will be trying to go a step further by embarking on a memorable run in the FA Cup.
Erik ten Hag will have different ideas.
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Fulham have never won the FA Cup, but finished runners-up to West Ham in 1975. Any reason to think this won’t be Fulham’s year?
Peter: “Facing Manchester United in the quarter finals! There was definitely disappointment that Fulham drew United away. This is quite an open draw this year, with only four Premier League sides left in the competition, so to draw one of the toughest sides at this stage was a shame. But even so, Fulham have equipped themselves superbly on their return to the Premier League. Their position in the table does not flatter them, and they will back themselves to cause United problems. With Joao Palhinha back from suspension, and Casemiro out for United and a long Thursday night trip to factor in as well, then Fulham will be hopeful of pulling off a shock. They last reached the semi-finals in 2002, so it’s long overdue…”
What’s the general feeling among Fulham fans ahead of the quarter-final?
Peter: “Much more hope than any expectation. Fulham fans are currently enjoying an incredible ride under Marco Silva. They stormed to the Championship title last season and this year has confounding pre-season predictions. To be in the latter stages of a major tournament is a welcome bonus, and unchartered territory to an extent — normally this time of year is cloaked in anxiety about promotion or relegation. To get to Wembley would be a fitting reflection of the feel-good factor in west London. But it won’t be easy, and there is a dose of realism factored in, particularly after their recent drop off in form.”
Which United player, if any, would you like to see at Fulham?
Peter: “Good question. Most of this Fulham have squad have performed beyond expectations so it is not as easy you would think to dislodge a player in the ‘first XI’. But United have some fantastic players, and none more so than Marcus Rashford right now. It feels like Erik ten Hag is beginning to unlock his potential, and that goalscoring threat would be welcome in any team.”
How do you think you will finish this season?
Peter: “Fulham have hit a sticky patch of late. They have lost back to back games, but even before then, it felt like performances had just dipped slightly. The international break arrives at a good time, in that sense. The thing is, Fulham’s fixtures from now on are relatively favourable on paper. They only have three more games against teams in the top half (including United away on the final day). Of course, those battling against relegation will be tough encounters but it means that, if Fulham can rekindle that early fire, that they might have an outside bet at the top seven. Truthfully, a top half finish feels realistically. And that would be a fantastic achievement regardless.”
Which players should we watch out for on current form?
Peter: “On current form, that would have to be Manor Solomon. The Israeli winger has burst onto the scene in recent weeks. He missed the first few months of the season with a knee injury, but he is making up for lost time. He scored in five successive games before the home match with Arsenal, an astonishing run only surpassed by Erling Haaland and Marcus Rashford this year. The other players to keep an eye on is Joao Palhinha. He is back in the team after suspension and you cannot underestimate his influence. He is a tackling machine and I expect he will throw in a few trademark lunges on Sunday.”
What do you think of Manchester United a) the club; b) the team; c) the fans and d) the manager?
Peter: “Manchester United seem like a club transitioning from one era to the next, underlined not only by expected changes in ownership but also in management. They seem to finally be heading towards leaving the wilderness, where they have resided in some for a little while, and that first trophy in six years in the Carabao Cup reflected that change in direction. On the team, they have a squad that seems better balanced than in recent years, and they do seem to have benefitted from the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. There is still some way to go in terms of quality of personnel for the very highest level, the result at Liverpool showed that. But the trend is positive with players picking up form. United’s fanbase is enormous and stretches across not only the country but the globe. They always travel in good numbers, but they are being tested at the moment when it comes to the ownership dilemmas the club faces. And finally, Ten Hag feels like the real deal. He has had to dig in, but it’s clear he is implementing a philosophy and identity. Whether he can reach the highest heights remains to be seen, but he has started positively.”
Best and worst memories from games involving Manchester United and Fulham.
Peter: “Since I’ve been covering the club, I’ve only seen Fulham face Manchester United at Craven Cottage (due to a pesky pandemic!). The first game saw was a painful defeat under Scott Parker, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in charge of United. Paul Pogba scored an exquisite goal. The reverse fixture was much more positive, Joe Bryan netting a heartwarming equaliser after a tough season.”
Favourite Fulham XI from players you have seen?
Peter: “I’m into my third season covering Fulham for The Athletic, and I have actually watched a surprising number of different players, with a high turnover due to the relegations and promotions. But my favourite team from what I’ve seen would be very close to this current side, mainly influenced by last year’s promotion campaign. It’s still very tough to call though. I’ll go 4-3-3 and: Bernd Leno; Kenny Tete, Joachim Andersen, Tim Ream, Antonee Robinson; Jean Michael Seri, Harrison Reed, Joao Palhinha; Neeskens Kebano, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Harry Wilson.”
Predict the score of the game at Old Trafford.
Peter: “1-1, decided on penalties!”