Hull City come to the Cottage on Wednesday – and I’ve already said just how important the next few matches are. Our recent form, minus a couple of capitulations at West Ham and Manchester United, has been impressive – especially at home – and has fuelled some optimistic talk about the possibility of a European place. That might be a little too optimistic since our first priority should be to ensure that we remain well above the relegation scrap which is now threatening to engulf Hull, who were such enterprising newcomers to the top flight in the early months of the season.
Phil Brown’s beleaguered side come to London with just one win in their last 18 league games and with rumours of dissention in the ranks swirling around. The cause couldn’t have been helped by Brown’s bizarre team talk on the pitch at Manchester City and the substituion of the once-lauded Geovanni against Blackburn on Sunday and the Brazilian’s less-than-sensible reaction showed just how frustrated people were getting. The boos that greeted the final whistle this weekend are a part of modern football, but Brown – perhaps having started to believe his own hype – is under pressure.
This fixture had supposed to be Jimmy Bullard’s return to Fulham after his £5m move north. Thirty seven minutes in his Hull debut and another tackle from Scott Parker later, his season was over and there was another serious injury to overcome. Such medical problems have justified Roy Hodgson’s decision to play hardball with Bullard much more decisively than most would have imagined and it has also robbed Hull of a creative hub in their hour of need.
You get the impression that losing George Boateng was a big blow too. The former Aston Villa man is no longer a spring chicken, but we’ve seen with the likes of Murphy and McBride that, if you are a dedicated trainer and prepare right, age is just a number. Boateng ran the game against us back in August and left many Fulham fans wondering whether the Bullard-Murphy combination would work in a four man midfield. Boateng’s knee ligament injury left a void that couldn’t be filled by Bullard or another quality holding midfielder. His return could help lift Hull away from danger.
There’s some revenge to be had here too. Fulham started our game at the KC Stadium superbly and were well worth the early lead given to us by Seol Ki-Hyeon (remember him?). But City gradually worked their way back into the contest, spurred on by a wonderstrike from Geovanni, and deserved the three points. The kamikaze defending that preceeded Hull’s winner shouldn’t be on show tomorrow night but it would be remarkably Fulhamish to hand a side struggling to buy a win a timely return to form, wouldn’t it?
Much depends on Clint Dempsey’s fitness before Roy decides whether he’l change the team that played so well at Arsenal on Saturday. The defence has been the rock upon which our excellent season has been built and there is no reason why John Pantsil shouldn’t retake his place at right back amongst the regular back five. Hangeland and Hughes will have to on their guard against a side that, despite their poor form, has still retained the ability to score goals so it’s a good thing that Mark Schwarzer was so commanding at the Emirates.
Even with a reserve game under his belt in the week, you sense that Wednesday comes too soon for us to finally get a glimpse of Giles Barnes. If Dempsey is not fairly the aftereffects of a heavy schedule, then Roy would most probably go with the four midfielders that made life so difficult for the Gunners at the weekend. It is no stretch to say that Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu ran the game against Arsenal in central midfield and it was encouraging to watch Simon Davies return to something like his best form.
Up front, the interplay between Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora looks very encouraging. Yes, we could have done with AJ putting away one of those presentable chances but it was telling to watch just how dominant Zamora was in the air on Saturday. He seems to have turned the corner from his more ponderous displays earlier in the season – and cuts a much more confident figure now.
Hull won’t be the cannon fodder that many have been suggesting. It will tough and we’ll need to play well. Brown will have them up for the battle as he acknowledges that they are in a fight for survival now. If we can replicate our performances levels from Arsenal, I would back Fulham to have too much for our visitors. Some of that sublime passing from Saturday wouldn’t go amiss either. Right now, it’s all about maintaining the momentum.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Davies, Dempsey; A. Johnson, Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Baird, Dacourt, Gera, Nevland, Kamara.