Another tough test on our travels on Saturday. Coming hot on the heels of our unexpected point at Anfield last weekend, Fulham go to Villa Park to try and take the wind out of Villa’s sails after their impressive start to the season and two commendable recent results as they try and break the hegemony of the ‘big four’.
Martin O’Neill’s side have long been tipped as the side best equipped to eclipse one of the more established Champions’ League qualifiers but few would have expected it to have been Arsenal who were under so much pressure. O’Neill, a man who was reportedly interested in the Fulham job during his time out of the game after leaving Celtic, has built a top side at Villa Park packed to the brim with young English talent and some hard workers. They deservedly won at the Emirates a couple of weeks ago and could have got more than the point they recorded at home to Manchester United on Saturday evening.
A clever manager, O’Neill seems to have found the 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation a perfect fit for his side (much like Chris Coleman did when we finished ninth back in 2003-04). He’s brought in two American goalkeepers in the summer: the ageless Brad Friedel and the much underrated Brad Guzan, who could be a household name in a couple of years to come. Unfortunately we’re unlikely to see much of former Fulham centre back Zat Knight as he’s been unsurped in the pecking order by the likes of Curtis Davies, who was unlucky not to start for England in Berlin the other week, and Carlos Cuellar.
They had Nigel Reo-Coker deputising in an unfamilar right-back position against United and should he reprise that role on Saturday that might be an avenue for us to attack. Clint Dempsey, in very good form against Spurs and Liverpool since getting the nod over the disappointing Zoltan Gera, might be able to have a bit of fun at Reo-Coker’s expense. He should have fond memories of Villa Park too, since he scored an early goal on our last visit.
There’s no doubting that midfield will be the battleground on Saturday. Villa have got real strength in the middle of the parkand we’ll have to be careful not to be overrun by their quality. Stiliyan Petrov, much maligned when he initially moved south from Celtic, has an had excellent season so far and will be a real threat – he’s got an eye for goal and a good passing range, so he’s far more than the glorified stopper some people have characterised him as. We know all about Gareth Barry but James Milner is beginning to prove it was worth uprooting him from Newcastle for all that money – keep this up and he might force his way into Capello’s thinking.
The forwards are also a big worry even with our defence playing well. If O’Neill sticks to playing one up, it will likely be Gabby Agbonlahor who starts against us and we all know what a rich vein of form he’s in. But John Carew – once a Fulham target who might have signed for us but for those supposedly dodgy knees – could get the call and net his inevitable goal against us.
With Roy likely to go with the same side, I’d rate a point as another excellent result to add to our measly collection on the road this season. If you’re lucky enough to be going to the second city, sing up please!
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Murphy, Bullard, Dempsey, Davies; Johnson, Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Baird, Kallio, Gray, Gera, Nevland, Andreasen.