The Limey
Friday March 20th, 2009

Ordinarily, Manchester United making a trip to Craven Cottage isn't much of a story. Fulham hasn't beaten United at home in league play since 1964. But an unusually high amount of attention is focused on this weekend's encounter.

Following Man. United's shocking 4-1 home defeat to Liverpool last weekend, the usual banal expectations of a United win in west London have given way to talk of Fulham having a shot against the defending English Premier League champs and achieving their ninth home EPL win of the season.

United's players, focused on preserving their ear drums, desperately want to avoid humiliating Sir Alex Ferguson again. The Scotsman knows all too well the potentially devastating effects of a loss of form and is, for all his other successes, still haunted by the 1997-98 season in which United lost the EPL title to Arsenal despite holding a 13-point lead in March.

As a result, expect Man U's concentration to remain high the rest of the season and for the Liverpool defeat, hurtful as it was, to be consigned as an unfortunate blip en route to significant silverware, including an 18th league title.

It's a tough road ahead for Ferguson's team, to be sure: Its FA Cup semifinal against Everton and UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against FC Porto (and potential semifinal against Arsenal) are difficult fixtures. But the Red Devils are expected to progress to the final in both competitions. Meanwhile, their strength in depth and established lead should see them prevail in the EPL. Few significant obstacles remain in their away fixtures, and while Aston Villa, Manchester City and Arsenal will be tricky at home, all three games are eminently winnable.

All this must be somewhat galling for the recently revitalized Chelsea and rampant Liverpool. Despite both teams' current form, they dropped too many points earlier in the season against lesser teams to maintain a serious title challenge. Chelsea, with four wins in four games under Guus Hiddink, once more is a purring Rolls Royce of a machine, while Liverpool had its best week in years. But the end result will be a hotly contested battle for second.

Meanwhile, drawn together in the Champions League quarterfinals, both Chelsea's and Liverpool's camps will be envious of United's and Arsenal's easier matchups with FC Porto and Villarreal, respectively. Although both Chelsea and Liverpool are currently high on confidence, it was the worst of draws for them. Following the result at Old Trafford, Liverpool surely would have preferred Man. United to Chelsea, while Chelsea will be all too conscious of Liverpool's European form.

"If you are asking me about a fear factor in the Champions League," reasoned Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard to Setanta Sports this week, "then I think it is the other seven teams in the draw who are going to have concerns about coming up against us after that Real Madrid result."

Only four days before the 4-1 win at Old Trafford, Liverpool hammered Real Madrid 4-0 at Anfield, 5-0 on aggregate. Across the two legs, Liverpool showed why it's so difficult to beat in Europe. Cagey and lying deep in Madrid, the Reds proved impossible to break down prior to Yossi Benayoun's late headed winner. Two weeks later at Anfield, maximizing the fluidity of Gerrard and Fernando Torres, their attacking prowess proved too strong for Madrid's star-studded defense of Sergio Ramos, Fabio Cannavaro, Pepe and Gabriel Heinze. Madrid may feel incensed by Liverpool's dubiously awarded penalty, but had it not been for the goalkeeping heroics of Iker Casillas, it would have been routed even worse.

Goals from Michael Essien and Didier Drogba earned Chelsea a 2-2 draw in Turin against Juventus, with the Blues progressing 3-2 on aggregate. It was a less convincing result than Liverpool's, but Chelsea's excellent league form is a significant pointer to the outcome of an all-English tie.

The arrival of Hiddink has kick-started the Blues' season and renewed the potential for success on three fronts with Chelsea also facing Arsenal in an FA Cup semifinal on April 18. Hiddink's men are rejuvenated, playing with more desire and greater efficiency than under Luiz Felipe Scolari. Indeed, Hiddink's coaching methods have brought praise from several senior players, including John Terry and Frank Lampard, with the latter telling The Guardian, "The manager's made quite subtle differences. He's a clever man, he doesn't want to come in midseason and make huge differences. The players have to respond and the players are responding."

One player who has certainly responded is Drogba. The Ivorian was dropped from Scolari's last two Chelsea squads, and with a seemingly reduced desire to play for Chelsea, appeared to be heading for the door. Since the arrival of Hiddink, Drogba has been in imperious form, scoring four goals in his last six games, and seems back to his bustling best.

So will Hiddink stick to the original arrangement and leave his Chelsea "project" at the end of the season to return full-time to the Russian national team? From an outright refusal when he joined, it seems the Dutchman's head slowly is being turned. He spoke in a different tone this week, admitting that people are trying to convince him to stay. "I will focus on Russia after this project but people say, 'Think about it, stay,'" he told the Daily Express. "I enjoy it with the Russians, but I do have a clause that says we can stop in November if Russia doesn't qualify." Success in any of the three competitions in which Chelsea is still competing surely would lead to Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who also subsidizes Hiddink's Russia salary, to do all he can to engineer the Dutchman's permanent appointment at Stamford Bridge.

Arsenal also has been busy rebuilding its season in the last couple of weeks. Successive victories against West Brom and Blackburn, and two successive defeats for Aston Villa, have seen the Gunners return to fourth place in the EPL and the crucial final Champions League qualification berth. This resurgence in form has coincided with the return from injury of Theo Walcott and Eduardo, as well as the improving fitness of Andrei Arshavin.

The Gunners, who were fortunate to benefit from two poor Roma penalties in their 7-6 penalty shootout victory, have progressed to a Champions League quarterfinal matchup with Villarreal. In a congested fixture list, Arsenal also had to play two FA Cup rounds in the space of nine days. Wins against Burnley and Hull City earned its semifinal faceoff with Chelsea. With the EPL now written off and the Carling Cup already in the Old Trafford trophy cabinet, Arsenal will have to beat Chelsea or Manchester United (assuming the Red Devils triumph over Porto) to reach a final this season -- a truly tough task.

The Burnley match saw Eduardo cement his return with a wonder strike that's a contender for goal of the season. Choosing not to go for the side-foot tap-in that Team Limey might just about manage in one in 100 attempts, the Croatian instead volleyed the ball into the top corner with the rear part of the outside of his left foot.

A "Watergate" of a more unhygienic nature than Richard Nixon's occurred in Arsenal's second taste of FA Cup action. Anger, accusation and denial has raged since Hull assistant manager Brian Horton accused an unruly Cesc Fàbregas, dressed down in leather jacket and jeans, of spitting at him following Hull's 2-1 defeat in this week's FA Cup match. Fàbregas retorted that he doesn't "even know who the assistant manager of Hull is or what he looks like."

Perma-tanned Hull boss Phil Brown, seemingly reading his notes from his evening law classes, set out the case for the prosecution against the Spanish Converse-wearing youngster: "One: Being on the pitch after the game -- he had no right to be there. Two: Being dressed in the manner in which he was dressed. Three: The pictures verify the aggression he was showing towards our players and staff after the game."

Fàbregas strenuously denied the allegations, which the FA has confirmed it is investigating. If Cesc is found guilty, it'll be interesting to see how effectively the FA could enforce a ban on a player who is currently out injured.

Finally, in the UEFA Cup, sole English representative Manchester City needed penalties to edge past Denmark's AaB Aalborg. City's game plan to minimize exertion in protecting its two-goal first leg lead backfired when Aalborg scored in the 84th and 90th minutes. However, two saves from Ireland ace Shay Given progressed the bookmakers' favorites through the penalty shootout and into a difficult quarterfinal against Hamburg, the fourth-place club in the German Bundesliga. Werder Bremen or Udinese await the winners.

Continuing the theme, Reg Peakall of Richmond, Va., asked about historic Champions League success: "All four EPL Champions League qualifiers are now part of the furniture at the quarterfinal stage of the competition. Have English clubs always been this successful?" Reg, the Champions League has only been going since the '92-93 season. Since then, of the 16 tournaments, only three have been won by English teams (Manchester United in '99 and '08, and Liverpool in '05) with only three English runners-ups (Chelsea in '08, Liverpool in '07 and Arsenal in 06').

With the exception of United's victory in '99, English success really has occurred only since '05. This coincides with the rapid increase in the money available to EPL clubs and in the establishment of the "Big Four," whose consistent appearance and progress in the competition has earned them significant prize money that has enabled them to enhance their squads further.

Prior to the '92-93 inception of the Champions League, the tournament in its old guise -- the European Cup -- featured only the champions of each qualifying European country, and therefore could have more credibly used the label "champions" in its title than the current format. If you include tournament victories dating back from the debut '55-56 edition, the English league sits in third place (11 winners and five runners-up), behind Spain (11 winners and nine runners-up) and Italy (11 and 14).

Send your thoughts on Friday's Champions League draw, and how you think it'll pan out for the EPL, clubs to the usual address: thelimey@hotmail.co.uk.

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