Optimism abounds again at Craven Cottage after a battling point – that might have been more – at Stamford Bridge in midweek. A much more assured defensive display than in the deflating defeat by Sunderland or up at Stoke underpinned an excellent Fulham effort and, without Brede Hangeland as the captain completes his three-match suspension, the Whites will need to be similarly disciplined against the Spurs forward line this afternoon. The derby draw actually saw Martin Jol’s side slip to their lowest league position of the season and the point against the not-so-noisy neighbours will count for little if Fulham fail to discover the impressive home form that has been the foundation of their recent success.
It won’t be easy. Tottenham have won the last five league fixtures between the sides – and you have to go back to November 2008 when Heurelho Gomes helpfully threw in a shot from Simon Davies for the last time Fulham took all three points on a day when Harry Redknapp also suffered his first defeat as Spurs’ manager. After a stuttering start under Andre Vilas-Boas there are signs that Tottenham are beginning to play as the Portuguese would prefer. An excellent win over Liverpool in midweek followed Sunday’s victory against West Ham and the six points lifted Spurs to fifth – just a win away from a Champions’ League spot.
Going forward, Vilas-Boas’ boys look frightening. Jermain Defoe is predatory personified and his pace and finishing will worry both Aaron Hughes and Philipe Senderos, neither of whom are the quickest, while out wide Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, who combined to tear Fulham apart in the first half of this fixture last season, will pose more problems for a Fulham defence that had been uncharacteristically leaky prior to the midweek trip to Fulham Broadway. There’s plenty of quality in midfield too, with Tom Huddlestone hoping to make his 100th top flight start for Tottenham, and, of course, two former Fulham favourites preparing to return to Craven Cottage for the first time.
The contrast in receptions will prove instructive. Mousa Dembele, frank about his perception of Fulham as a useful Premier League stepping stone when he arrived in August 2010, might even hear his name sung by some Fulham fans, who watched his progression into a dynamic, dribbling central midfielder during the second half of last season, and appreciated the way he continued to perform for the club as the rumours were flying around. There won’t be such a good feeling about Clint Dempsey’s return, despite his five-and-a-half years at the Cottage with all the memorable moments he was part of, after the manner of his exit. The American was foolish enough to admit to feeling underappreciated at Fulham on Thursday – he’ll certainly feel that way after this afternoon.
Dembele and Dempsey’s return might make for good copy, but Fulham can’t afford to be distracted by the hype. Dimitar Berbatov and Martin Jol have reunions of their own to look forward to and special reasons to try and end Fulham’s barren run against Spurs. Tottenham aren’t unbeatable and there’s a growing belief that the side Jol’s building posseses an attacking arsenal to trouble the very best defences, which is not a description you’d ascribe to Tottenham’s at the moment. The absence of Benoit Assou-Ekkoto means Michael Dawson, who endured a wretched afternoon when Fulham cantered to an FA Cup win a year ago, and William Gallas, who will remember enjoying a heated discussion with the Stevenage Road stand after being sent off at the Cottage in our win over Chelsea, will have to cope with Berbatov if the outstanding Jan Vertonghen continues to deputise at full-back.
Jol has a few selection dilemmas to ponder over before he hands in the teamsheet at 2pm. Should the fit-again Kieran Richardson replace Hugo Rodallega, who struggled to make an impression on the left wing on Wednesday, and offer some defensive protection if John Arne Riise continues to raid forward? Is Kerim Frei ready to be included from the start or could Ashkan Dejagah come back in? Giorgis Karagounis was outstanding in the hole behind Berbatov at Chelsea, but Fulham will need a more offensively-minded man for the Bulgarian to link with. Without the injured Bryan Ruiz, should the roll fall to Mladen Petric, who started the season in such a rich vein of form? Perhaps the most important question as we watch another Fulham side develop during a fascinating campaign is whether the Whites can realistically puncture a porous Spurs’ defence whilst remaining assured at the back. It should be a captivating contest.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Senderos; Diarra, Sidwell; Duff, Richardson, Petric; Berbatov. Subs: Etheridge, Kelly, Baird, Karagounis, Dejagah, Frei, Rodallega.