But the reasons Conor Hourihane gave for describing last night’s match as significant, before it fell victim to the latest wave of the virus sweeping through the country, still stand true for next week’s trip to Fulham. Because just like their rivals from west London, Marco Silva’s men are above United in the Championship table. And so a positive result, at Craven Cottage on Monday, would help dispel the theory that United can only beat teams from the lower reaches of the division.
“It will be a good gauge of where we are,” Hourihane, the Republic of Ireland international, said. “It feels like, if we can get a result, it will really kick us on. Against a promotion contender, a team that’s had a better start than us, it’s going to be a really good test.”
United will travel to Craven Cottage on the back of a three match winning streak, after beating Reading, Bristol City and Cardiff City following the international break. Their last two outings came under Paul Heckingbottom, who replaced Slavisa Jokanovic as manager following their triumph at the Select Car Leasing Stadium.
United would have climbed to eighth had they overcome QPR. But they have only once taken three points off opponents in the top half of the division since being relegated from the Premier League last season. Although Heckingbottom recently told The Star he “isn’t bothered” where their victories come from, improving that record would be a psychological boost for a squad which, by the 44-year-old’s own admission, began the campaign low on confidence.
Fulham remained in first place despite being held by Luton Town on Saturday. After winning seven straight outings, that was their third draw in a row. However Aleksandar Mitrovic, Jokanovic’s fellow Serb, did return to the scoresheet at Kenilworth Road. Mitrovic’s latest strike, his 25th in 26 appearances so far this term, ended what now passes as a drought for the Serb who had failed to find the back of the net during outings against Preston North End and AFC Bournemouth.
“Against Bristol City and Cardiff, with all due respect, we really went into those feeling we could get a result,” Hourihane said. “They were really good tests, definitely. Really tough games. But we’re looking to the future and at what’s above us now. One game at a time, but that’s the mindset we’ve got.”
Facing the likes of Mitrovic and Harry Wilson, who has netted on six occasions in the league so far this term, will prove a test of United’s new-found defensive stability and tactical acumen given that cutting the supply line to Fulham’s attack is likely to form the basis of Heckingbottom’s masterplan for the trip to west London. United had kept three clean sheets in a row en route to the Welsh capital, where they prevailed despite conceding once in each half. Mitrovic and Wilson have claimed as many goals between them during the first 22 rounds of competition as United’s entire squad combined.
“I think there’s a bit of a buzz back around the place now,” Hourihane, on loan from Aston Villa, said. “We want that to build.”