You can’t blame Roy Hodgson for targeting the West Brom game this weekend as a winnable home fixture. We were very unlikely to get anything at all from Old Trafford and injuries and suspensions (such as the one that John Pantsil seems to have picked out) would have proved very costly.
Let nobody assume that the Baggies will simply roll over and die. Tony Mowbray’s side play some lovely football and the return of the on-loan Jay Simpson should help them add a cutting edge to some elegant approach play. Having been considered nailed-on certainties for the drop for most of the year by many of the pundits, West Brom responded with a decent run of results around the turn of the year and can’t be discounted – particularly as the rest of the teams around the drop zone continue to struggle.
Mowbray’s side have almost as bad an away record as us. They have, however, mustered a win on their travels this season – but it came all the way back in September at Middlesbrough. The manager, who has been under severe pressure this season, also has to contend with a lengthy injury list. Skipper Jonathan Greening, Ryan Donk, and Jonas Olsson are all missing from the side that will line-up tomorrow.
We’ll have to be up for the fight tomorrow as West Brom have already surprised us once this season. I’ll be interested to discover how the injury situation dictates which side Hodgson will pick tomorrow. Ideally, you’d like to go in with the strongest possible back four but that obviously depends on whether Paul Konchesky can shake off his muscle strain to return at left back. As I said in the previous piece, Kallio did a good job at Old Trafford and seems a worthy understudy. Given that he was outstanding against Arsenal on his only other Premier League start, I wouldn’t be too worried about the prospect of the Finn getting another game.
The midfield is where the big selection posers are. Will Olivier Dacourt start alongside Danny Murphy? If he’s fit, you would think he has to. His tackling ability and underrated passing have made a real impression even in the fleeting glimpses we’ve seen of the Frenchman since he arrived on loan from Inter Milan and he seems a much more natural partner for our captain than Dickson Etuhu, who might in contention for a starting berth.
Surely Zoltan Gera won’t have done enough to keep his place against his former team? The potential for motivation alone might be a good reason for sticking the Hungarian in the eleven, but he’s got plenty to prove to the Fulham fans after an iffy start to his Cottage career. Far better than an out-of-position Simon Davies should start on the left, even if I was impressed with Julian Gray’s brief contribution at Swansea the other week.
Depending on the system that Roy chooses to start with, Clint Dempsey could either feature on the right or reprise his role from The Hawthorns as the advanced midfielder in the hole behind a central striker. Whilst the latter might be his best position, he seems to have settled into playing on the right flank of late – and, especially if AJ is fit, should be kept there. It would be a nice time for the American to recapture the scoring form that saw him net twice against Chelsea just after Christmas.
The smart money – injuries permitting – would be on Johnson and Zamora resuming their partnership up front. They dovetail well together even if Bobby’s still not finding the net with any great regularity. Erik Nevland showed his ability in our last home – the 3-1 win over Portsmouth seems ages ago now – but also demonstrated why he might not be a viable option from the start in a largely ineffectual performance against Swansea. How much Nevland can be blamed for that given the atrocious lack of service he received is obviously a matter for debate. There’s even the potential for Diomansy Kamara to make his ‘dream’ return against his former side, but he’ll probably have to do from the bench.
Whether the return of the big names will relegate our youngsters to the stands also remains to be seen. There was a part of me that was proud to see us finish the game at Old Trafford with two academy graduates on the pitch and young Chris Smalling on the bench. Wayne Brown obviously has the potential to become a fine player – but the X-factor will determine whether he makes it with us or drifts down the leagues. I haven’t seen too much of Rob Milsom, but Hodgson obviously rates him highly – and that’s good enough for me. I’d like to see a bit more of the pair of them before the season’s out as one of the major criticisms of our managers in the past has been that we haven’t trusted our young players enough – but that’s probably a subject for another post.
Right, I’m off out of the internet cafe in a minute – see how dedicated I am on a Saturday afternoon with my own internet malfunctioning? – to watch Guus Hiddink’s first game in charge of Chelsea but I’ll be back after the match tomorrow to give a run down on what happened at the Cottage. If you can’t get to the game – and there are still tickets available – it’s live on Sky from 1.30pm.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hangeland, Hughes; Dacourt, Murphy, Dempsey, Davies; A. Johnson, Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Baird, Kallio, Etuhu, Brown, Kamara, Nevland.