The despondency that surrounded most Fulham fans last weekend has, I imagine, lifted a little bit by now. Whilst we couldn’t manage an ending as stunningly pleasing as the one provided by Andreas Iniesta, with a week’s reflection leaves we wondering whether our distant European dreams could be salvaged. The defeat at Chelsea did significant damage to our hopes of clinching seventh place, but the congested nature of the Premier League table means that we could still sneak into continental competition. With West Ham at Liverpool, Spurs facing Everton and Manchester City taking on the champions, it is entirely possible that all our major rivals for seventh spot could drop points this weekend.
Still, qualifying for Europe will not be easy and will require us beating two sides who have already qualified for Europe and getting something from an away trip to a team fighting for their lives. Villa have had a terrific season, even if missing out on the Champions’ League must have been tough to take having made all the running. Martin O’Neill, the man who was seen several times at the Cottage during his break from the game prompting rumours that he might take over from Chris Coleman, has done a wonderful job taking a side that were flirting with relegation a couple of years ago into Europe. The impressive way that he’s compiled a side brimming with young English talent – and nurtured three young stars along way the way to possibly becoming international regulars – makes his achievements all the more remarkable.
Some people may be tempted to write Villa off this weekend as they’ve already secured European football. But they have finally ended a horrid winless streak with that nervy (and yet deserved) win over hapless Hull and it’s not like O’Neill to let his players ease off in the closing weeks of the season. The players have already sounded notice that they want to beat Everton, our final day opponents, to fifth and they’ll probably see a trip to Fulham as the ideal way to end a less that fruitful period on their travels. Villa may have a couple of injury doubts – though I doubt the whispers about Ashley Young’s fitness are anything more than wishful thinking on the Fulham messageboards – but whatever side O’Neill puts out will still be up for the challenge. What price John Carew, who famously failed the Fulham medical, adding to his impressive goal haul against us? Should Emile Heskey join the Norwegian up front, his compatriot and Aaron Hughes, a former Villa defender of course, could be in for a torrid afternoon. Even if O’Neill decides to play Gabby Agbonlahor, the youngster’s pace could prove a real threat.
With the underrated Petrov, provided he shakes off an injury sustained in the win over Hull, and the excellent Barry likely to be snapping away in the Villa midfield, we’ll need Dickson Etuhu and Danny Murphy to be a little more incisive than they were at Stamford Bridge. Zoltan Gera was a little busier against Chelsea, but it would be handy if he chose these game to prove to the Fulham fans that Curtis Davies wasn’t just being kind to a former team-mate. Gera’s only real flash of brilliance so far came on an unforgettable day against Manchester United and it’s a shame that the rest of his Fulham career has been a bit of a disappointment so far. Clint Dempsey’s looked very tired in recent weeks, which is perhaps understandable given his excellent performances this year for club and country, but we could do with another stirring display tomorrow. Whilst most of the side should pick itself, Roy Hodgson will have a niggling concern at the back of his mind about his strike partnership.
For half an hour or so, Bobby Zamora and Erik Nevland combined beautifully at the Bridge. The way Nevland sped away from Alex into the gaping holes behind the Chelsea defence before beating Petr Cech from an acute angle is perhaps the happiest memory from the derby. It would be cruel if a typically thuggish challenge from John Terry should deny Nevland the chance to stake a convincing case for a regular spot in the side. Reduced to substitute appearances when the mood takes our Roy, Nevland has been as professional as ever and has produced a couple of devastating cameos which, now I think about, have coincided with visits from our Swedish supporters who helped establish this site. You’ll be happy to know that they will be back to cheer us on tomorrow – come and say hello in Brick should you get the chance.
Hodgson seemed confident that Nevland will recover in order to take his place in the side for this weekend, but I’ve yet to see any word on Zamora’s fitness. The wags amongst you, as well as the guy I sat next to at the Bridge last week, will doubtless reckon this might not be such a disaster. But I’m not sure the Kamara-Nevland partnership is a winner up front. Joe will have to turn in a better performance than the toothless display at Chelsea, where he seemed to run up blind alleys and be reluctant to pass the ball, to convince me that he’s worth more than a place on the bench.
We were fortunate – in my view – to take a point from Villa Park this season. Let’s hope we can repeat last year’s stirring victory at the Cottage and give ourselves a great chance of recording our highest-ever top flight finish at least.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Gera, Dempsey; Zamora, Nevland. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Baird, Stoor, Dacourt, Gray, Kamara, Smalling.