Make no mistake: Saturday’s a massive game. Newcastle are still scrapping for their lives and their survival bid was given a timely shot in the arm by their derby win over Middlesbrough on Monday night. The way Hull have self-destructed since Christmas it could be argued that a grand total of no more points will be needed for survival, but we all need no reminding that silly things do happen at this stage of the season. Fulham, of course, need the points for entirely different reasons – a win could well wrap up a place in the new Europa League format for next season, something that would put the gloss on a remarkable campaign.
Despite all the usual suggestions about our poor away record, I’d like to think the boys will be travelling north with plenty of confidence. We have tightened up quite considerably on the road this year – seven 0-0 draws are evidence enough of that – and I’d be pretty confident about our ability to nick a goal or two at the other end. The way that we unlocked Villa time and time again last weekend showed once more that we’ve got the ability to trouble the top sides and, at times, this season Newcastle’s defence has seemed almost non-existent.
Weighed against that optimism, however, is the nagging feeling that the Magpies will be throwing everything at us from the first whistle. They’ll be desperate to turn their final game of the season – which, on paper at least, seems like a tricky test at Villa – into a party by all but clinching their survival with a win this weekend. There’s no doubt who the dangerman is, either. Rich has remembered Mark Viduka’s knack of nicking goals and causing problems against us – and his impressive performance against Boro on Monday showed that he’s still got it at this level, despite being ignored by Joe Kinnear.
Alan Shearer has certainly got the players motivated and there will be no shortage of passion at St. James’ Park on Saturday. He seems set to go with the same side that got that crucial victory earlier in the week, with the only doubt being whether he’ll stick with Michael Owen up front. Owen’s another one who has a consistent record of scoring against us – and it would be just our luck for him to break his goal drought in the game against Fulham. Obafemi Martins, whose cameo caused such problems for the Middlesbrough defence on Monday, is another one to watch if he convinces himself that he can play through the pain barrier of a recurring groin injury. It will be up for to Aaron Hughes, on what’s sure to be an emotional return to Newcastle, and Brede Hangeland, who is moving closer towards extending his stay at Craven Cottage, to keep them all quiet.
Although Damien Duff’s done a sterling job out of position at left back in the past few games, his defensive skills should be tested by Zoltan Gera. The Hungarian did misplace a few passes against Villa but generally I felt he had another good game. He’s slowly beginning to show just why we were all excited that he decided to join us from West Brom in the summer and display the kind of potential that seemed to be missing in his wretched run at the start of the season. Should he be on his game again tomorrow, the dangerous Duff could be spending more time in his own half than getting forward to support the Newcastle attack.
We’ll need to be strong in midfield. Newcastle will be tigerish in the centre, with the impish Alan Smith and Kevin Nolan, who’s got a point to prove and is still fighting for a regular spot in the team. Dickson Etuhu has made the legions of fans who criticised him before he’d even kicked a ball in anger for the club eat several slices of humble pie in recent weeks and it would be a good time for another imposing performance. He’s looked much more than just the glorified stopper than some derided him as, especially with his range of passing improving as he’s grown used to the way we like to play.
The boys have been making the right noises about flying over the finishing line – with John Pantsil being the latest to highlight the importance of ending the season well. Our loveable right back sometimes seems to be as mad as a hatter and few would have credited his confidence that we could get into Europe when he signed from West Ham. He’s firmly established as a fans favourite, as much of his post-match appreciation of our support as well his fine displays.
I wonder how much of our success has been due to the settled nature of our side. Roy’s proven reluctant to making changes, allowing those who have done well to keep the shirt. Barring any unforeseen injury doubts, his main decision would seem to be who to select up front. With another week gone by, you would expect both Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora to be stronger contenders for a starting place. Regardless of their fitness, though, I’d be very tempted to see whether Dio and Erik the Great could reprise their excellent link-up play of last week. Kamara looked nerveless in front of goal and, with a bit of luck, Nevland might have scored for the third game running.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Gera, Dempsey; Nevland, Kamara. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Baird, Dacourt, Gray, A. Johnson, Zamora.