Saturday sees a return to league action and a big game at the Cottage. The visit of Blackburn is certainly not the home banker it might have been when Paul Ince was in charge of Rovers and, even in Sam Allardyce’s short time at Ewood Park, they look a tougher side to beat. To be sure of safety and if we want to keep our current strong position in the league. we will need to win these sort of home games but there’s certainly no chance that Blackburn will make it easy for us.
One of the big regrets of our season so far was not taking something away from a scrappy reverse fixture. We matched Blackburn for much of the contest, playing some good football, and Andy Johnson missed a glorious chance to score his first goal for the club – an opportunity that, had it fallen to him now, he might not have passed up. When we conceded that late goal and then went and lost to another set of strugglers, West Brom, many would have feared that we were in another season of struggle ourselves.
Instead, Roy Hodgson – himself a former Blackburn manager – has done a fine job in steering us on this unbeaten run, the impetus for which has largely been a series of strong home wins. We still seem a little more adventurous at the Cottage than we do on our travels and we should be minded to start tomorrow’s encounter on the front foot and try to nick an early goal to calm the nerves.
Blackburn’s wretched away record might even work in our favour. They one just one of their last six away from home and conceded 12 goals in that run. Despite those statistics, I’m surely not the only one who reckons Rovers have got enough quality to get themselves out of trouble this season. The tabloid hacks might be saying that much depends on Roque Santa Cruz staying at Ewood Park and, yes, losing their star striker would be a big blow but I’d back Allardyce winning a struggle with the board on that one. Surely a strong character such as Allardyce wouldn’t have taken the job had he known that the big names were out the door in January.
It’s not as if Rovers are weak in attack, however. Benni McCarthy had a brilliant first season in England and remains a real threat up front. Jason Roberts has been in decent form in recent weeks – scoring crucial goals as Allardyce’s reign got off to a good start – and why Matt Derbyshire seems to have to settle for starting on the substitute’s bench remains a mystery to me, even though I’m watching from afar. I really rate the England under-21 international and fancy he could develop into quite some player. Whichever pair of strikers Blackburn decide to start with, Hangeland and Hughes will certainly have to be on their guard.
The visitors also have a fair bit of quality in midfield to give our quartet a real battle in there come the first whistle tomorrow. Brett Emerton might have been playing at right back at times during the season but he’s comfortable in a number of positions across the midfield whilst the injured David Dunn remains a big miss. Vince Grella, supposedly a transfer target for Roy Hodgson during the summer, hasn’t really made a mark since joining Blackburn although we certainly should be wary of Morten Gamst Pederson, who has a track record of scoring some blinding goals against Fulham. Allardyce can also call upon the services of the evergreen Tugay, who hit a screamer to win one league encounter between the sides at Ewood Park a few years ago, whilst the likes of Steven Reid, the promising Keith Tracy and Keith Andrews, who followed Ince from MK Dons, also add depth to the midfield.
I promise it’s not because of my Kiwi connections but that I think he’s a good defender – I’ve always rated Ryan Nelsen very highly indeed. The centre back adapted seemlessly to the English game when he slotted straight into the Blackburn back four and with the likes of Chris Samba, Andre Ooijer and Stephen Warnock, who Liverpool were reluctant to let go a few years ago, to play alongside him it’s a bit baffling to work out why Blackburn have conceded so many goals this season.
This certainly isn’t going to be a fixture where Allardyce’s side rolls over weakly. The former Bolton and Newcastle manager certainly doesn’t do things like that. We’ll have to be up for the fight and expect a physical battle. To that end, it would be a bonus if Bobby Zamora could shake off his back injury that hampered his progress at Sheffield Wednesday last weekend and partner AJ up front. Although I’m a big fan of Erik Nevland, I don’t think Zamora’s likely replacement has the physical presence we’d need to unsettle Blackburn as Johnson’s partner. The only other question for Roy Hodgson to mull over before picking his team is the fitness of Jimmy Bullard, who has missed the last two games with a dead leg. Is he fit enough to return and will Hodgson drop the in-form Dickson Etuhu to accomodate him if so?
Other than that, there aren’t too many headaches for Hodgson to ponder. Just as an aside, could Time Out be any more snobbish about tomorrow’s fixture? I’m certainly looking forward to it – and I know I’m not the only one.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Dempsey, Davies, Murphy, Bullard; Zamora, A. Johnson. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Baird, Andreasen, Etuhu, Nevland, Gray.