Andy Johnson got off the mark for Fulham in the reverse fixture
Roy Hodgson has spoken this week of the importance of building upon last Saturday’s timely win over Portsmouth at the JJB Stadium tomorrow. Not that we’ve got too many happy memories of travelling up to Wigan in recent years. Fulham have never won at the Lactics in the Premier League and I still wince when recalling our 2005 defeat, where we had two decent penalty shouts turned down and lost to an injury-time goal from Pascal Chimbonda. Indeed, our last league win at Wigan came back in September 1992 when we travelled back from Springfield Park buoyed by a 3-1 success.
Clint Dempsey, who will make his 50th start for the Whites if he is selected, is the only Fulham player to have scored a Premier League goal at the JJB – but we rather set the tempo for a largely frustrating season away from home last year when Hameur Bouazza conceded a late penalty and we had to settle for a 1-1 draw. Despite not having won in four games, Wigan will be tough oponents tomorrow. Steve Bruce is quietly building a strong side at the JJB Stadium, even if they have lost Emile Heskey and Wilson Palacious.
Bruce has made a name for himself by capturing some fine South American talent in the last few years. The Colombian Hugo Rodallega, who looked very sharp when he came on as a substitute against Liverpool recently, and might well pose some problems for our defence. Amr Zaki’s early-season goal glut must have made him a contender for signing of the year and he will reprise a temperamental (and sometimes testy) partnership with his compatriot Mido up front. We will probably be up against our former midfielder Michael Brown in the middle of the Wigan engine room as well. Brown could well be partnered by Ben Watson in central midfield – a player who reportedly interested Roy during the transfer window – and might turn out to be another excellent signing by Bruce.
The very fact that this will be a battle of two sides who could conceivably be in line for a European spot come the end of the season will surprise some of the experts. But Wigan are far from a side who like to get the ball forward early: they play some nice football under Bruce and are fully deserving of their impressive league position. The lively winger Charles N’Zogbia may well line up against us down the left hand side to make his debut and he could be a real threat.
I rather expect Hodgson to stay loyal to the same line-up that did the business against Portsmouth. Barring any last-minute injury niggles, the defence that has been so successful for us this year should remain intact. I know Nick (and a few others) have been touting the services of Swedish full-back Fredrik Stoor ahead of John Pantsil but I think Roy will prefer the Ghanian at right-back. Hangeland and Hughes will need to be on their toes against a lively Wigan front pair and you can expect Mark Schwarzer to have a busy afternoon as well.
I suspect that this game will come a little too soon for our two loan signings. Giles Barnes is still short of match fitness, which must have been part of the reason why Nigel Clough was happy to grant the midfielder his wish of returning to the Premier League, and Olivier Dacourt must be a little way off peak condition having suffered so many injuries of late. All that means that Dickson Eutuhu, who for me had a much better game against Pompey, should start alongside Murphy in central midfield and I feel this game could be tailor made for his combative style. Against the tigerish Brown, we might well need the Nigerian to get his foot in.
The only real selection poser for Hodgson is whether to keep faith with the out-of-form Bobby Zamora up front. Zamora is very much a confidence player and his confidence is clearly shot at the moment. At the same time, you feel he’s only a little bit of luck in front of goal away from going on a scoring run. Would dropping him now be the right call? Even if Erik Nevland was impressive last weekend, it remains to be seen both whether he has the ability to last a full ninety minutes any more and if he has the necessary physical presence to be a suitable partner for Andy Johnson. Diomansy Kamara might have returned to training of late (and looked pretty sharp according to Hodgson) but it’s still to early for him to be pitched into a contest from the start or even as a substitute for me.
We are still to win away from home this term and, even if we have picked up some useful points on the road, Fulham still hold the third worst away record in the league. A win on our travels would come in very handy, but at this very moment I’d gladly settle for another draw. Unambitious? Maybe. Realistic? Definitely.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Dempsey, Davies; Zamora, A. Johnson. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Baird, Gera, Gray, Barnes, Nevland.
REFEREE: Lee Probert (Gloucestershire).