When Ryan Giggs netted against Newcastle on Monday, it ensured he had a goal to his name for the 21st consecutive season. It also meant he kept up his record as the only player to score a Premier League goal in every season since its formation in 1992.
Things have changed for Giggs in the interim years, going from the hot young prospect of his day to the longest serving player left at Old Trafford. The Welshman has recently talked about his changed relationship with his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, an association that has morphed from pupil and feared boss, to a mutual respect that now sees the Scot ask his wing wizard for advice. The willingness of the managerial legend to seek the opinions of a player such as Giggs, who is in his own right a legend on the playing field, helps to explain the longevity of Ferguson in the dugout. Sir Alex could be forgiven for thinking he knows everything there is to know, with an exceptional CV that encompasses many a triumph at United, as well as the success with Aberdeen and beyond that earned him the job in the first place. Instead, Ferguson is astute enough to know that he can learn from his charges, with his squad at United featuring several players who have collected a wealth of experience from long careers at the club.
If things have changed for Giggs over many years, Ferguson will hope that the outcome of Sunday’s match at Fulham will be vastly different to their last visit to Craven Cottage just eight months ago. The pre-Christmas trip to SW6 brought about a dismal 3-0 defeat for the Red Devils, coming amidst a defensive injury crisis that saw United field a back three of midfielders Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and rookie defender Ritchie De Laet in front of keeper Tomasz Kuszczak. At the very least, Ferguson will be able to field a far more recognisable defence, with Rio Ferdinand the only significant absentee for the game. Both the experienced Wes Brown and a member of the Community Shield winning line-up, Fabio, did not even make the bench for the season-opening victory over the Magpies, despite United making room for two defenders on the bench. The United squad boasts nine defenders who would be selected at the back ahead of the three who played against Fulham last December, with only recent signing from the Cottagers, Chris Smalling, added to the squad in the meantime.
It is hard to know what to expect from Fulham on Sunday. Under Roy Hodgson, the Cottagers performed above all expectations, going from relegation-certainties to Europa League finalists in just two years. Hodgson has now departed for one of United’s fierce rivals Liverpool and has been replaced by the former boss of another, ex-Manchester City manager Mark Hughes. Sparky may have been a hero at Old Trafford in his playing days, but he has shown little difficulty in managing teams against his former club. Whilst he was unable to taste victory in the Manchester derby, he was victorious against United whilst Blackburn manager. Hughes will offer his former boss Ferguson no favours but after just one game in charge of Fulham, a goalless draw at Bolton, it is not clear how much of a threat his team pose at this stage of his tenure.
It is four years since United won both their opening two fixtures, but their motivation to change that statistic in 2010 will likely have been boosted by the desire to keep up with Chelsea from early doors. For the second week in a row, the Blues play their league fixture first, and it is one that a betting man would mark down as a certain victory. Chelsea may have lost at Wigan last season, but it is hard to imagine the same fate occurring this time around considering their 6-0 victory over West Brom last Saturday and the Latics’ abysmal 4-0 home defeat to Blackpool. Ferguson knows it is imperative that United do not gift their rivals a head start in what is set to be a titanic battle for the Premier League title. Fulham have kept the majority of their successful squad together, but they will still be adjusting to the new ideas and methods of Hughes. If United can take advantage of any uncertainty in the Cottagers’ performance then six points out of six are on the cards. After a confident win over Newcastle, the Red Devils will enter the match in good shape to aim for a win. With the luxury of fielding a recognisable back four, and with Giggs and his partner in crime, Paul Scholes, in evergreen form, an improvement on their last result at Fulham will surely arrive.