Even if you count the Anglo-Italian and Angl0-Scottish Cups and our couple of Intertoto Cup fixtures before uncertainty surrounded the future of Craven Cottage, European football at Fulham’s historic home is still something of a novelty. Having comfortably seen off FK Vetra in the last round, the Whites will aim to move a step closer to the group stages of the Europa League when they welcome Russian side Amkar Perm to the Cottage tonight.
It will something of a step into the unknown for Roy Hodgson and his team as they have been dogged by the same visa issues that have frustrated Fulham fans trying to make the trip out to Perm for the second leg next week. The club were unable to organise visas for their scouts to watch their Russian opponents so they have had to base their preparations for tonight’s game on video footage of Amkar in action. Hodgson says it’s far from ideal.
We’ve seen them on video so we have quite a clear idea of what they’re like and how they play, but it’s a little bit of an unknown.
Fulham will be hoping that they don’t endure the kind of horrid hangover from their successful previous season that Perm seem to be having to cope with. Amkar, who began life as a works team for a chemical factory just 15 years ago and have enjoyed a remarkable rise up the Russian league pyramid, finished fourth in the Russian league last year to qualify for the Europa League but their new Bulgarian coach Dimitar Dimitrov has failed to have the same impact as his predecessor. Halfway through the domestic season, Perm are thirteenth in the sixteen-team Russian Premier League and they let a two-goal slip against Zenit St. Petersburg in their last league match on Sunday. All the same, Fulham will have to be wary of top-scorer Martin Kushev, who scored both the goals against Zenit.
Amkar’s success last term was based, much like Fulham, on a solid defence and it will be up to the Whites to break them down tonight. The onus will be on the home side to secure a comfortable advantage to take back to eastern Russia next week, especially as the away leg will be played on a plastic pitch. I shouldn’t imagine that the need to score goals will persuade Roy to jettison his favoured 4-4-2 system but our more creative players may be given a little more license to get forward in an attempt to try and leave less resting on that second leg.
There’s been some talk in the build-up to this game about the possibility of resting players for Sunday’s local derby against Chelsea. Of course, Chelsea is a massive game – and is the first fixture that we look for when the fixtures are published every summer. But, for me, we need to field the strongest possible side not just to give ourselves the best possible chance of progressing in the competition but to continue the momentum built by those two wins against Vetra and the opening day victory at Portsmouth.
That should mean that our regular back five remains in place. Midfield will be the interesting area, with both Clint Dempsey and Zoltan Gera looking over their shoulders, although for different reasons. Having played almost a year of football without a break, it is inevitable that Dempsey’s international commitments will catch up with him eventually. There’s a credible case for starting him from the bench tonight if only to rest what must be tired legs. Gera simply hasn’t reproduced the kind of form that convinced Roy to bring him in from West Brom on a Bosman and his was a nervous performance at Fratton Park on Saturday. Both could feasibly lose out in the long run after Fulham completed the signing of Damien Duff, but it’s more likely to be the Hungarian.
Duff’s interview with the official site yesterday implies that he could play some part tonight and it might be sensible to give the winger a little bit of a run out, considering that I’d want him to play a role against his former club on Sunday. The best line of build-up to this contest, though, has to go to Jason Gatties, who sums up his confidence ahead of this game thus:
Damien Duff could be ready to go tomorrow. Who cares? We could beat Amkar with Hillary Duff on the pitch as long as we stick to Roy’s game plan.
He’s right, of course. We should be confident of beating Perm and I’m fairly sure that Roy will have quashed any chance of the boys being dangerously over confident tonight. We’ll have to treat them with respect and be wary of a potential banana skin – this is certainly a far tougher test than our previous assignment against Vetra – but Jason’s watched Perm more closely than me of late and isn’t convinced by shaky defence and slow midfield. Let’s hope we can take advantage.
Tasked with doing just that should be our regular front pair of Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora. AJ scored two second-half goals in our comfortable win over Vetra at the Cottage but looked a little out-of-sorts at Portsmouth, with one glaring miss that you feared might have come back to haunt us. Zamora’s league campaign got off to a fortunate start as he got his body in the way of a Dempsey shot but was soon running away to celebrate and we hope that’s given him the confidence to put last season’s poor goalscoring return behind him.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Gera, Duff; Zamora, A. Johnson. Subs: Stockdale, Kelly, Baird, Dempsey, Seol, Nevland, Kamara.