It seems safe to call Manchester United and Fulham the two most disappointing teams in the Premier League this season, albeit for different reasons.
United, last season's champions, are currently in seventh place, 15 points behind league-leading Arsenal. It's safe to say they haven't adjusted particularly well to life after Sir Alex Ferguson. Meanwhile, a Fulham squad that finished 12th on the table a year ago is currently dead last in the league this year.
Now, these two disappointing squads meet in a crucial Premier League match for each of them. Let's break it down.
When: Sunday, February 9 at 11 a.m. ET
Sunday, February 9 at 4 p.m. GMT
Where: Old Trafford, Manchester, England
Chances: Manchester United (67.7 percent), Fulham (13.6 percent) and draw (18.7 percent), according to Bloomberg Sports
The addition of Juan Mata was supposed to be the spark this United team needed to fuel a late push for a Champions League push. And it seemed to be in his debut, as the club defeated Cardiff City, 2-0. But then came last weekend, and United was stunned by Stoke City, losing 2-1.
In many ways, those two games were a microcosm of the club's season. Just when you think they're about to go on a run of form and re-emerge in the Champions League race—they trail fourth-place Liverpool by seven points—they completely botch a winnable game.
And it's why former United defender Gary Neville has tipped Liverpool to finish the season in fourth, not United, via Sky Sports:
I have to say that at the moment Liverpool are in pole position and look the strongest.
Liverpool were top of the league on Boxing Day and I think that there has been progression there this season, mainly through Luis Suarez's form who has been incredible but he is supported and aided by the rest of his team mates.
I would have said a few weeks ago that United would have got fourth place, I'm not going to change it just yet, but there has to be big improvements.
Everton had a good response to that demoralising derby defeat and Tottenham we're not quite sure about are we? The big battles for all teams are still to come and it could be any of those four, but I think it will be between United and Liverpool.
There aren't many teams in the Premier League where a seventh-place spot on the table could be considered such an epic failure, but United is one of them. Anything less than a fourth-place finish will be considered a huge disappointment.
Of course, Mata should help. The Spaniard provides the creativity and vision that United have often desperately lacked this season, and his ability to unlock opposing defenses with his crisp and incisive passing is a huge addition for the club.
It's one reason why Ryan Giggs feels he can become a legend at the club, via Richard Jolly of ESPN:
Player-coach Giggs, who has made 959 appearances for United—his only club—and is the most decorated player in their history, is firmly established in the pantheon of United legends.
He believes Mata has the ability to join those ranks, telling MUTV: "I think he could. He's obviously got the talent.
"I don't want to put too much pressure on him, but I don't see why not. I think that coming here will help him with regards to playing for Spain as well, if he is playing week in and week out [for United].
“Spain have got a great side, so if we have a regular Spanish player within Manchester United, it will be great because they are such a good team at the moment.”
If he can help salvage United's season, he may become a legend at the club sooner than later.
And then there is Fulham, a club that have won just once in their last eight matches across all competitions (with two draws). Even after a busy transfer window that saw them bring in Konstantinos Mitroglou, Lewis Holtby, John Heitinga and Clint Dempsey, the Cottagers continue to struggle.
Fulham have taken just nine of a possible 36 points on the road this season, so it's hard to fancy them at Old Trafford. Then again, Manchester United have as many points at home this year (20) as they have on the road, so it's not as though their famous stadium has been the impenetrable fortress it often was under Ferguson.
Fulham have been miserable enough this season that it's hard to project them pulling an upset, but it would hardly be shocking if this game was close. On paper, United should win with ease, but they've often been far less impressive on the actual field this year.
Still, Fulham's recent form is hard to ignore, and United should continue to improve with Mata, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney forming a dynamic trio. Expect the defending champions to earn all three points, winning 2-0.
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