Chelsea away. If I’m honest, it’s the first game I look for when the fixtures are published. It’s not because I hate Chelsea, their fans, their players or the fact that they are rolling around in new money, but because for so long little old Fulham were not even on their radar screen. Our big derby was Brentford for years and, when I was growing up, that one didn’t always go to plan. But even in the dark days at the bottom of the Third Division, we always used to sing about Chelsea by the Green Pole and, in the last few years, the boys have managed to ruffle a few blue feathers.
I remember coming back from a game before Christmas with a good friend of mine on the tube. We discussed the potential venues where our away win for the season might come (this was before our away form was so impressive as to garner eight out of the last twelve possible points on the road). I suggested Chelsea because it was about time we won at the Bridge. He shook his head rather ruefully and said that we’d had our chance to win there last year. I couldn’t disagree. Mourinho gone, the fans in revolt, an unheralded manager in charge – images of those late missed chances by Kamara and Konchesky rushed through my brain.
It certainly should be a good day out. We’ve sold out our away allocation for the derby so they’ll be a vocal contingent ready to roar the boys on. We’ve put up a good fight in the last few years at the Bridge. Perhaps my best personal memory was Luis Boa Morte’s equaliser in 2003 that preceeded the march back to the Cottage. Then, there was the Brian McBride inspired comeback from 2-0 down (when Joe Cole should have been sent off for tugging him back in the box) only to lose to a late goal. And we snatched an unlikely point the following year when Carlos Bocanegra rifled in a memorable equaliser from close range. In fact, factor in our win at the Cottage a couple of years ago and the battling draw in the reverse fixture in December, and you can see why Chelsea fans I know say that we’re becoming annoying. As a relatively new Premier League club, I’ll take that as a compliment.
A point would be a good result but, at this stage of the season, we can’t afford a slip up. Should West Ham beat Stoke our nice little two point cushion in second place could evaporate so – for us, at least – the game has a much bigger significance than just local bragging rights. The fact that our neighbours have the return leg of their Champions’ League semi-final against Barcelona in midweek and the FA Cup final at the back of their minds might mean that beating Fulham isn’t top of their priorities. Indeed, ex-Fulham fan David Mellor, who now proclaims his nauseating love for the Blues in a pompous sports column for the Evening Standard, has described the game as meaningless. Michael Ballack says Chelsea fans will understand if Guus Hiddink fields a weakened team. Before we get too excited, consider that the amount of money Roman Abramovic has ploughed into Chelsea, means that their second string could probably still claim a European place if they were on the teamsheet every week.
The spine of the side that we face is likely to be the same. John Terry will be free to practice his unique brand of defending – our visits to Stamford Bridge don’t normally pass without an ‘accidental’ handball or two from the England captain. Indeed, Chelsea’s goal in 2003 was a direct result of Terry clearly propelling the ball towards goal with his hand. Frank Lampard is a probable starter in the Chelsea midfield. We’ll have to watch him – he’s scored 14 goals against us in the Premier League – and he has a nasty habit of the goading the away fans, whether he’s been the subject of a bit of a banter from the terraces or not. You can rest assured he will be tomorrow. And then there’s Drogba. Pretty listless at the Camp Nou as the soliditary striker who spent more time on the ground than on the ball, but utterly terrifying in the home before Christmas. He might not have scored but he looked a real threat. He’s a class striker and will be a real handful for Hangeland and Hughes tomorrow.
But, with our away record improving and our form against the ‘big four’ impressive this year, we can be confident of posing a few problems for Chelsea. I’ll be interested to see if Zoltan Gera can match his solid display against Stoke with another good performance tomorrow. A run in the team on the right of midfield, as opposed to the left where he started his Fulham career, could give us a glimpse of the guy who was so impressive for West Brom. Danny Murphy will hopefully be back on song, playing his perceptive passes through midfield after a week’s rest.
Roy’s real selection poser will come up front. If Andy Johnson’s really done a medial ligament (and, it may just be me, but it’s gone a bit quiet on the subject of his injury since Saturday) then he’ll be out for the remainder of the season. Whilst that’s disappointing, like Simon Davies, AJ will be fully fit and raring to go come pre-season. Bobby Zamora’s back spasm might well have healed in time for the derby. He’s the more likely of our regular front two to play. Whether he does or not, Roy could reprise his formation against Blackburn and play Dempsey just off the main striker, but I’d be more tempted to stick Erik Nevland up front with Zamora and leave Clint in midfield – because it’s not as if he’s failed to influence games from that position this season.
Let’s hope we give another good account of ourselves as we head down the season’s final straight. It’s a memorable year and a few more wins on the run-in could take us into Europe, something remarkable when you consider the position Hodgson found us in when he took over.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Gera, Dempsey; Zamora, Nevland. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Baird, Stoor, Kallio, Dacourt, Gray, Kamara.