So, here we are then, within touching distance of the end of the season. You’d have got very long odds on Fulham finishing in the European places back in August, when this correspondent concluded his own round-up of the pre-season previews by saying he’d be happy if we ended up in fifteenth. Regardless of the result on Sunday, this should be seen as a remarkable campaign, full of unexpected highs and lovely football. Inevitably, though, if Spurs manage to sneak into that Europa League spot we’ll look back on it with more than a tinge of disappointment.
Like the altogether more anxious end to last season, our fate is in our own hands. Beat Everton – or even draw (barring an improbable winning margin for Spurs) – and we’ll be preparing for the European tour that the Hammersmith End choristers have been singing about (at first with incredulity) for months. A defeat would leave us hoping that Tottenham don’t spring a last day surprise at Anfield. It’s all a hell of lot better than hoping against hope that we could survive in the league.
Roy Hodgson’s belatedly getting some recognition for the miracle that he’s worked down by the Thames too. I heard his achievements being talked up on Radio 5 Live the other night. The transformation in our fortunes is quite astonishing and all the more so when you consider that it’s been the signings that everyone was a little bit iffy about who’ve fuelled our rise up the table. Nobody can complain about John Pantsil’s extraordinary first season in a Fulham shirt – he looks every inch the natural right back rather than someone who has been converted there and then coached to perform to an even higher level by Hodgson. Then there’s Dickson Etuhu, who was derided before he had even kicked a ball for us, and has become an accomplished midfielder in dovetailing perfectly with Danny Murphy.
We shouldn’t expect too many changes to Hodgson’s start for our last outing of the season. The settled nature of his team has been one of the principal factors that have contributed to this magnificent season – and has led some to speculate on how the demands of European football could cause plenty of headaches should we qualify. I’d prefer to see our potential entry into the Europa League as a wonderful opportunity to test ourselves against exotic opposition – and, let’s face it, it could be a very long time indeed before the chance comes around again.
It is rather ironic that Roy might well end the campaign with his first choice striking partnership on the bench. I would imagine that Andy Johnson is absolutely desperate to line up against his old side, but I’d be tempted to keep him chomping at the bit on the bench. Bobby Zamora might have to get used to a few more cameos as well if Erik Nevland and Diomansy Kamara continue to impress up front. Nevland’s much more than a goal poacher and his intelligence, allied with Murphy’s vision, prised open the Newcastle defence for the crucial goal last weekend. Kamara couldn’t miss – and rarely does, even from the much difficult distance from which he blasted home his first against Aston Villa.
The question marks do surround which Everton team we will face on Saturday. David Moyes is expected to field the kind of shadow side that we played when Portsmouth were in a similar position to the Toffees last season. If Moyes, who must also be in the running for the manager of the season accolade as well, decides to rest some of his star names with the Cup final around the corner, it might be an opportunity for some of the lesser lights to stake a claim for a place in the Wembley squad.
One person who can’t feature against Chelsea is the cup-tied Brazilian Jo, which should make him an almost certain starter. In recent times, the Brazilian has showed the skill and poise in front of goal that prompted Manchester City to shell out big money to bring him to English football in the first place. It will probably be City who reap the rewards of Jo’s undoubted talent as Everton appear to part with the kind of money necessary to make the striker’s loan spell permanent. We can only hope he doesn’t mark his last appearance in an Everton shirt with the kind of display that leaves our European hopes in tatters.
I’ve been pondering what sort of reception Louis Saha will get on his return to the Cottage. His dream move to Manchester United did apparently fund our return home, although the manner of Saha’s departure still hurts. Given that some of the one-eyed element of our support saw fit to boo Heidar Helguson earlier this season, I doubt he’ll get a warm welcome. That’s assuming that he’s risked – as he’ll probably be a likely starter at Wembley.
Whichever team Moyes decides to play, they’ll certainly represent a stern test. Everton’s rise to fifth place after something of a sluggish start is no fluke, particularly when you consider the injury problems that they have had to contend with. One thing that makes their success all the more pleasing is the way in which Moyes has been unafraid to give the youngsters their head. The promising Jack Rodwell looks to have the makings of a top player, Dan Gosling has already demonstrated his keen eye for goal and young James Vaughan knows how to finish as well. I’ve heard positive things about Jose Baxter too. With Moyes in charge, the future certainly looks bright for the blue half of Merseyside.
Hopefully, Fulham will be up to the challenge. We do, of course, have that flawless home record against Everton since we returned to the top flight to protect.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Gera, Dempsey; Nevland, Kamara. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Baird, Kallio, Dacourt, Gray, A. Johnson, Zamora.