Beware the wounded animal. That’s the message Roy Hodgson should be drumming into his Fulham players this weekend. Aston Villa, dumped out of Europe by an impressive Rapid Vienna side in a lively second leg last night, will be chomping at the bit to put matters right at Villa Park on Sunday. Martin O’Neill, an astute manager and master motivator, will demand that his team rediscovers the zest and energy that carried them to such a strong result at Anfield earlier in the week.
I’m positive it won’t happen – and maybe that’s a good thing – but I’d love Hodgson to cast off the shackles come Sunday afternoon. Roy set his side up not to concede away from home last season and only let them off the leash towards the end of the campaign. This approach was very much in evidence at Portsmouth on the opening day of the season and I feel sitting back early against Villa could well play into the home side’s hands. With O’Neill sure to ask his players to pour forward early and set the tempo to enthuse the home fans, there could be a lot to be gained from a more adventurous approach.
A more attacking mentality might exploit Villa’s defensive frailities. Curtis Davies was forced off with that troublesome shoulder injury against Rapid and Carlos Cuellar, though he did plenty of mopping up against the Austrians, has always struck me as a little bit shaky. You’d fancy that the pace of Kamara and the nous of Nevland could pose Villa a few problems. Whether Richard Dunne’s move from Manchester City will go through in time to mean that O’Neill won’t be relying on young Shane Lowry remains to be seen.
There’s still plenty to fear from Villa, though, as they look irresistable when going forward at times. Ashley Young will give many a quality full back a torrid time throughout this and many more seasons – and there’s more than just his searing pace to worry about. On the other wing, James Milner had an impressive little cameo as a substitute on his England debut against the Dutch a couple of weeks ago and he has the ability to stretch Fulham’s usually rigid defence. That’s without considering the height and power of Emile Heskey and John Carew up front, with the unpredictable Gabby Agbonlahor offering another option in attack. Hangeland and Hughes are certain to be kept pretty busy.
If O’Neill sticks with the 4-4-2 system deployed in the Europa League, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll persist with Petrov and Delph at the heart of the quartet. Steve Sidwell might replace the former Leeds youngster but regardless of who starts, Fulham will have to be competitive in midfield. It is an indication of just how much Dickson Etuhu has improved since he’s been at the club, that he’s now seen as a certain starter in central midfield – and his imposing presence might soften the blow if Danny Murphy fails a fitness test. On loan Jonathan Greening would be line to make his Fulham debut should the skipper miss out.
Fulham expect to have Clint Dempsey back in the side after the American missed our nervy night in Perm with an ankle problem. Hopefully, he’ll revert to his more natural midfield role after toiling earnestly – and yet unsuccessfully – as a forward against Chelsea last weekend. Damien Duff will be eager to continue his promising start to his Fulham career on the left, which would mean that Zoltan Gera might get a welcome break.
Up front, I’ve already indicated a preference for the Nevland/Kamara combination that was so impressive at the tail end of last season. That might seem harsh on Bobby Zamora – who will still have to prove his fitness if he wants to add to his collection of early-season goals – but I feel our new number 25 hasn’t really gelled with any of his other potential partners as well as he has with Andy Johnson, which makes the latter’s shoulder injury all the more disappointing.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Dempsey, Duff; Nevland, Kamara. Subs: Stockdale, Baird, Greening, Gera, Riise, Zamora, Seol Ki-Hyeon.