We head off to the Stadium of Light with a few questions to answer in a game that could tell us a lot about the future of our season. Only does who expected extraodinary progress could really fault Roy Hodgson’s job performance so far as he’s succeeded in keeping as further above the relegation fray than either Lawrie Sanchez or Chris Coleman in his latter days at the club. Of course, given the ridiculously congested nature of the Premier League, you are only ever 90 minutes away from a bad run and the criticism that comes with it, so even as we sit in the top half of the table, this is no time for relaxation.
Much will depend on which Fulham turn up on Tuesday night. Will it be the side whose comical defending cost them so dear at West Ham in our last league game? If it is, then we’ll be in for a serious problem and the boys will face another stern dressing down from Hodgson. On the other hand, if we can turn in the kind of disciplined performances that saw us take points from Anfield and Villa Park then most of us will feel a little more comfortable about the remainder of our season.
You don’t even have to follow Fulham to know that away wins don’t come easy. They are the special treat you’ll get from your parents if you’ve been a really good boy. Perhaps that run of extraordinary results at the end of last season was the Special One in the sky’s way of rewarding us for the utter dross we’d witnessed earlier in the year. But Roy’s desperate for the three points – and you can see why. He’s made us hard to beat away from home, but actually winning would signify some real progress.
We’ll have to be on our guard against Sunderland. The newly honoured Mark Schwarzer might well have a busy evening, especially if Kenwyne Jones does return to the lead the line for the Black Cats. Just his physicality will prove a real threat to our impressive defensive record and nobody needs reminding of his aerial ability after he scored a deflating late equaliser on our last visit to the Stadium of Light. Ricky Sbragia might also hand a recall to the eccentric and unpredictable El-Hadji Diouf, who always seems to enjoy playing against the Whites.
Even if Sbragia hasn’t had quite as good a start to his permanent role as he did when he took over the reigns on a temporary basis after Roy Keane walked, Sunderland still possess a real threat. Regular readers will know just how much I swooned over Steed Malbranque and that his departure is still a touchy subject with me. If you need reminding why, just click here and weep. He’s still our joint top goalscorer in the Premier League and is moving impressively up the list of all-time assisters in the top flight. It would just be typical if the little French midfielder had a foot in our downfall, wouldn’t it?
Still, Sbragia does have to contend with some injury list as he contemplates his starting line-up for tomorrow night. There’s no guarantee that Kieron Richardson, who was so unlucky not to cap a fine performance at the Cottage with a richly deserved goal earlier this season, will be able to shake off a troublesome ankle injury. The combative Nyron Nosworthy, who has had an Amy Winehouse ditty reworked in his honour, will miss out with a hamstring problem and Craig Gordon won’t be between the sticks because he has yet to recover from his ankle trouble.
I’d rather not see Dickson Etuhu’s name on the teamsheet tomorrow evening, even if I feel that some sections of our support have been too quick to ridicule him. He’s been thrown in at the deep end after a long injury lay-off and coped admirably in tough midfield battles at Spurs and against Chelsea. He might have been below par at West Ham and Kettering especially but he’s inevitably going to come out on the wrong side of comparisons with Jimmy Bullard because the two of them are entirely different players.
Our long-term replacement for the recently departed moneygrabbing mercernary (is that too harsh?) is yet to identified. That we need one assumes that Hodgson is going to stick to the same system but I’m of the opinion that the manager was tolerating Bullard’s mercurial talent rather than building the team around it. Murphy’s modified game was a necessity whilst he had his floppy-haired friend alongside him but surely I’m not the only one who wants to see our captain break out of his shackles and start popping up on the edge of the box, as he did so effectively at the weekend.
The silver lining from the events of Friday is that it must have increased the chances of Leon Andreasen staying at the club. We’ve only seen fleeting glimpses of what the Dane can do even though he’s been with us for almost a full calendar year now, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen. He certainly won’t shirk a tackle and looks comfortable enough on the ball. As a steadying influence alongside Murphy, he fits perfectly and I’d really like to see him get a decent run in the team. We’ll have to wait and see whether Roy grants my wish.
Perhaps the most pleasing part of our late, late show at Kettering on Saturday was the difference that Bobby Zamora made as a late substitute. He was brave to stick his head in at the far post to keep a hopeful cross from Simon Davies alive and that, on its own, could have saved a nervy final few minutes and a replay – at best. His sweet finish from the right angle of the box showed that he still has those predatory instincts in right of goal that some thought had long since left him – and hopefully the confidence will be coarsing through his veins when he partners AJ up front tomorrow. If Davies can replicate the kind of performance he put in on Saturday on Wearside, then perhaps even the Welshman, who has dipped below the admittedly high standards he set for himself last year, can be considered to have returned to his natural level.
Of course, there’s only the chance that a lamentable defeat could pose a whole new start of questions. In fact, that’s probably what will happen.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Murphy, Andreasen, Dempsey, Davies; A. Johnson, Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Baird, Gera, Etuhu, Gray, Nevland.