Think back to August. Then, such a question would have seemed preposterous. This is Fulham after all, annual strugglers in recent years, who scraped survival on the final day courtesy of a late goal at Portsmouth. A team who couldn’t buy a win away from home against Arsenal, who could surely shape up better in their pursuit of silveware than in the previous season, when an unfortunate glut of injuries prevented an impressive young side from continuing an impressive dart at the title.
In many ways our surprise (and deserved) 1-0 win over the Gunners at the Cottage back in the early days of the season was a hallmark of the massive improvement we’ve seen under Roy Hodgson. We were defensively well-drilled, kept our shape diligently and looked threateninggoing forward. Thse of who with good memories will recall that we were without Andy Johnson, who has had made such a difference to our threat in front of goal, and left back Paul Konchesky that evening. In Johnson’s absence, the much-maligned Bobby Zamora turned in one of the best performances of his Premier League career, bullying defenders and running the Arsenal defence ragged.
Whilst we’ve continued on our quiet rise into eighth place, still with a game in hand on most of the sides around us, Arsenal’s season seems to have really struggled to get going. Arsene Wenger, for the first time in a long while, is under pressure and, whilst the new batch of wonderkids look like they’ve got astronomical potential, he himself admitted this week that it would be three years before we see them performing to their full ability. In the meantime, his squad looks woefully short and Arsenal, shorn of many creative players through injury, look rather predictable as they limp along in fifth place – in serious danger of not qualifying for the Champions’ League next season.
Therefore, in spite of our wretched away form, Fulham should travel to Ashburton Grove on Saturday full of optimism. If we can do the things that have made us less of a soft touch on the road this season, then we should fancy ourselves for a point. That’s not to say it’s going to be easy. We will have to be disciplined in defence and keep possession well because a side like Arsenal, with pace and the ability to break with devastating effect from deep positions, can punish the smallest of mistakes.
Wenger seems to have been operating with a three-pronged forward line in recent weeks, with one central striker and two attacking-minded players operating from the wider positions. Emmanuel Adebayor, who seems to enjoy scoring against Fulham, is out with an injury so we will have to keep a close eye on the likes of Robin van Persie, who also looks like he’s got a blinding goal in him, and Nicklas Bendtner, the Danish striker who enthralls and infuriates in equal measure.
That, of course, is far from the sum of Arsenal’s threat. Samir Nasri has flitted in and out of games since leaving a decisive mark on the game that saw Manchester United’s last defeat in November. He’s a quality player, whether he starts out wide and through the middle, has terrific distribution, the ability to beat his man and a real eye for goal. If we don’t pay close attention to the Frenchman, we could well be looking back on a hiding come the end of the game. The other major figure to look out for, of couse, is Andrei Arshavin. The little Russian playmaker’s protracted move to Arsenal finally went through at the start of February and he looked impressive against Sunderland despite Arsenal’s laboured performance in a 0-0 draw.
The Gunners will be determined to put their form of late behind them with a win tomorrow afternoon. We’ll want to extend our recent run of good form and build on that important win over West Brom last Sunday, with two big home games against Blackburn and Hull to come in the immediate future. Seven (or even six) points from those three games would confirm our place in the top flight next season and allow ourselves to adjust our targets upwards to perhaps include an unlikely assault at a European place.
You would hope that our approach at Arsenal wouldn’t preclude us from having a real go at their vulnerable defence. It’s far from the rearguard that made George Graham famous or even the tight ones which saw Wenger bring a few titles back to North London. Fortunately, we no longer have the monkey of never having won at Highbury to contend with and it would be nice to break our duck at the Emirates tomorrow. We’ve had some near misses there already, none more so than last season’s opening game, where – thanks to Jens Lehman’s generousity – we came agonisingly close to snatching a point or all three before a late Arsenal revival.
It speaks volumes about John Pantsil’s performances since he joined the club that we are now worried about the prospect of him missing tomorrow’s game through suspension. There were plenty of people worried that Pantsil would be torn to shreds by Nasri in the reverse fixture, but that was the first display of many that has seen Pantsil’s doubters shrink dramatically in number. Don’t get wrong – he has his limitations at full-back – but I’m far more concerned about the rusty (and so far distinctly unimpressive) Fredrik Stoor lining up at right-back tomorrow.
There shouldn’t be too many other changes to what has – by our standards – been a very settled side this season. Danny Murphy will come back into central midfield to captain the start (I felt, missing that sitter apart, he made a real impact when he came on against Swansea) and we hope that Johnson shakes off any trouble from the injury that kept him out of the Manchester United game. Anybody want to take bets on Bobby Zamora continuing his fine recent scoring run?
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Stoor, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Davies, Dempsey; Zamora, A. Johnson. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Baird, Kallio, Dacourt, Gera, Nevland, Kamara.