A tricky trip to Sunderland awaits for Fulham this afternoon with Martin O’Neill’s side desperate to drag themselves away from a relegation dogfight by ending their poor run of form with a win. Martin Jol has been at pains to point out that his side are by no menas clear of the drop themselves despite two successive clean sheets and an important win over Stoke last week and has set his players a target of reaching the forty-point mark as soon as possible.
Jol would dearly love to record a third away victory of the campaign at the Stadium of Light to add to the wins at Wigan and West Brom but his first focus will be to try and avoid the defensive mistakes that so hampered Fulham in their 3-1 defeat by Sunderland at Craven Cottage back in November. That was Sunderland’s first away league success in nine months – and the damaging defeat abruptly ended Fulham’s encouraging start to the campaign. Though the match – and arguably the trajectory of Fulham’s season – turned on the sending off of skipper Brede Hangeland, Fulham still fashioned plenty of chances but their visitors were far more clinical in front of goal.
That sort of sharpness in the final third has eluded Sunderland of late – and it might have been what prompted O’Neill to pair Steven Fletcher with Danny Graham up front for the first time in their 2-1 defeat at West Brom last weekend. That was the Black Cats’ third straight league defeat in a row – their worst run under O’Neill – and John O’Shea has urged his team-mates to discover the kind of consistency that will see them to safety. O’Neill chose to focus on the positives after the Hawthorns’ setback and was encouraged by the number of opportunities his side created against West Brom, which suggests he may field a similar 4-4-2 formation this afternoon. That could mean that Fulham’s defensive improvement could face a severe test against Fletcher and Graham, who have both scored against the Cottagers in recent seasons.
The hosts will be missing the bite of captain Lee Cattermole in central midfield, however, as O’Neill admits the former England under-21 international may need an operation to overcome his troublesome knee injury. Cattermole’s absence could see the Swede Sebastien Larsson pushed into central midfield or usher in a return to the starting line-up for the former Blackpool midfielder David Vaughan. Jol was waxing lyrical about his abundance of midfield options during yesterday’s press conference and Fulham do seem will served in the middle of the park after months of making do without Mahamadou Diarra. It will be interesting to see how the Dutchman decides to line up at the Stadium of Light, with several players pushing for a recall.
The easiest option would be to field the same side that stoically saw off Stoke in the lunchtime kick-off last weekend. That would see Giorgos Karagounis and Steve Sidwell paired together in central midfield and the Greek veteran has certainly breathed new life into what looked a pedestrian midfield during Fulham’s barren midwinter run. Jol, however, has been talking up Emmanuel Frimpong in the build-up to this game, hinting that another physical contest could suit the Arsenal loanee’s attributes after his combative debut at Carrow Road three weeks ago. Alex Kacaniklic’s departure on loan to Burnley for the remainder of the season suggests that Jol sees Urby Emmanuelson as a more appropriate replacement for Damien Duff, whose Newcastle connections should ensure a hot reception on Wearside, although the Dutch international has impressed in two outings in central midfield as a substitute.
Jol will also have to decide whether to reward Kieran Richardson’s return to full fitness with a start against his former employers, although that would be harsh on John Arne Riise, who has improved greatly on his return to the side. The manager will likely keep faith with his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, with Bryan Ruiz operating just behind the mercurial Dimitar Berbatov in attack. The Bulgarian striker might have to reproduce the kind of finishing that saw off Stoke to beat Simon Mignolet, however. The Belgian goalkeeper was outstanding at Craven Cottage in the previous meeting between the sides and was named North East Football Writers Player of the Year this week – a fitting reward for a fabulous season. No wonder O’Neill’s so keen to tie him to a long-term contract.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Riise, Hangeland, Senderos; Karagounis, Sidwell; Dejagah, Duff, Ruiz; Berbatov. Subs: Etheridge, Hughes, Baird, Frimpong, Emmanuelson, Rodallega, Petric.