The general consensus seems to be that we dropped two points at Stoke last weekend. After the game, Roy said he was disappointed we hadn’t won but becoming concerned that we keep drawing a blank – two contradictory messages perhaps. We certainly are more resilient on the road than last season but we do seem a bit more expansive at home and perhaps that is why we’ve picked up the vast majority of our points at the Cottage. Still, if you’d have told me back in November that we’d have gone six games unbeaten I would have bitten your hand off.
Tomorrow’s opponents are Middlesbrough, who – despite seeming annual strugglers like ourselves – are enjoying a good start to the season and sit just two places below us in twelfth. They have six points from their last six games, the last of which came in a creditable 1-1 draw with Arsenal on Saturday lunchtime. Gareth Southgate is the latest beneficary of Boro chairman Steve Gibson’s commendable policy of giving his managers time (something Southgate’s former Middlesbrough and England teammate Paul Ince will doubtless be reflecting on this weekend) and is building a decent side at the Riverside.
You might remember that Steve McClaren brought a team of largely homegrown youngsters to fulfil his final fixture as Boro boss at the Cottage before his ill-fated reign as England manager. Two years on and several of those young talents have matured into key first-team players for Boro. Stewart Downing continues to press his international claims as one of the few naturally left-footed Englishmen of any real quality whilst his understudy Adam Johnson seems to be getting a bit more game time now. Centre back David Wheater, who returns from a one game suspension on Saturday after harshly being sent off at Hull, is also on the fringes of the England picture having stepped into Southgate’s shoes at the heart of the Middlesbrough defence.
Southgate has to contend with something of a lengthy injury list and so may have to shuffle his pack tomorrow. Midfielder Gary O’Neill, who has been linked with a New Year return to Portsmouth, has been out since the middle of November with a hamstring injury. Impressive young left-back Andrew Taylor is also expected to be missing with a knee injury and Southgate’s defensive worries have been compounded by the loss of right-back Justin Hoyte, who has had to have surgery on a damaged knee cartilage. Mido, who so embarassed Tony Warner for Middlesbrough’s equaliser at the Cottage last year, is out with a hamstring injury.
There are still plenty of players to watch in the Boro line-up. We’ve already mentioned Wheater at centre back and I’m of the opinion that they have one of the most underrated midfields in the Premier League. As well as Downing and Johnson, Southgate can pick from the likes of Didier Digard, a shrewd summer signing from Paris St. Germain, Julio Arca, Mohamed Shwaky and a few more Academy graduates. Up front, the young manager is likely to pair Turkish international Tuncay Sanli, who is the club’s joint top scorer so far with four goals, with Jeremie Aliadiere and keep Alfonso Alves on the bench.
For Fulham, Bobby Zamora is expected to miss out again with a hamstring injury. Whilst it would be typical of Roy to pick the same side again, we looked a little lightweight up front at Stoke with AJ up front on his own. Playing one up front against Middlesbrough, a home game we would expect to win, could also be considered a little too conservative. Some fans have been calling for Erik Nevland to get a start all season, but that would mean dropping one of our midfielders. The axe would most likely fall on Simon Davies, who has sacrificed some of his attacking game for the cause this term and has been stuck out on the left since Clint Dempsey returned to the team. Dropping Zoltan Gera a week after he was recalled might also be a little harsh.
I predicted a draw in my BoroMania preview because I saw this game being particularly tight once again but three points on Saturday would certainly send us all into Christmas in good heart.