Here we go then. Just a day away from Fulham’s opening fixture of the new Premier League campaign at Portsmouth. Fratton Park’s been something of a happy hunting ground for the Whites over the last few years. Of course, Danny Murphy’s majestic leap will live long in the memory, but Clint Dempsey’s late equaliser last year was highly significant as well. Not just for the team – as it kept us above water at a difficult time in the season – but also for our American, who must have realised what a big goal it was for him as he ran past the delirious visiting support screaming ‘I’m f****** back’ over and over again.
There’s always optimism at the start of the season and that might be encouraged by our brilliant last campaign. Our fitness should be close to the optimum level after those European ties against Vetra acted as handy warm-ups for the start of our league season. My worry would be that our previous success would set the bar too high in terms of expectations – as achieving a similar finish with almost the same squad will test even Roy Hodgson’s capacity for miracles.
The disappointment that we haven’t been able to freshen up the squad to an even greater degree would probably be balanced if we were able to hold onto Brede Hangeland, who is expected to play tomorrow. Certainly the news that Dempsey, one of the most improved members of the Fulham squad over the last eighteen months, has signed a contract extension keeping him at the Cottage until 2013 is very welcome. So is this morning’s confirmation that Diomansy Kamara has rejected the chance of a return to France to stay with Fulham.
Aaron Hughes was sensibly dismissing talk that Portsmouth would be easy first day assignment earlier this week. Whilst financial uncertainy still hangs over the south coast club and they’ve lost a number of key players in the close season, Pompey will still be roared on by their fanatical home support and Paul Hart has enough quality at his disposal to hurt us if we aren’t careful. If Nadir Belhadj, Niko Kranjcar and Aaron Mokoena return without any injury problems from internation, Fulham could be in for a real battle in midfield.
There aren’t too many selection headaches for Roy Hodgson. The same back five that were so outstanding last season – and probably the reason for our ascent up the table – should be automatic selections if fit. Mark Schwarzer was one of the best keepers in the league last year and we’ll be hoping that energetic right back John Pantsil doesn’t suffer from second season syndrome. If Hangeland and the criminally underrated Hughes can remain composed in the centre of the defence and as long as Paul Konchesky can avoid another opening day cock-up, then we should be in with a great chance of recording a positive result.
Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu, who showed that the merciless mocking of his ability before he’d even kicked a ball was well wide of the mark with a string of impressive displays, should line up again in central midfield. The two really contentious issues will be who to select in the wide areas. Simon Davies probably won’t be fit enough to play as he is still recovering from the foot problem that ended his last campaign prematurely and there have to be concerns about Dempsey’s fitness as he played the full 90 minutes at the Azteca in the heat and altitude on Wednesday night. Zoltan Gera should start in place of one of them – and still get the sense that the Hungarian’s got something to prove after a rather sluggish start to his Fulham career – and Bjorn Helge Riise, who looked lively against the Scots in midweek, most be in with a shout of making his league debut.
There will, of course, be calls to play Erik Nevland alongside Andy Johnson up front but I’d be tempted to resist them (at least for now). Bobby Zamora endured a difficult first season with Fulham, but he turned down a move to Hull this summer and has looked sharp in pre-season. He has already stated his desire to prove his many critics wrong – and a strong performance in the away leg against Vetra should have boosted his confidence. There’s nothing to stop Roy bringing Nevland or even Kamara (although it now seems that he’s ruled out with a knee injury) off the bench in the second half if he feels the need to change it up.
Here’s hoping that we get off to a good start tomorrow.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Gera, Riise; Zamora, A. Johnson. Subs: Stockdale, Baird, Kelly, Seol Ki-Hyeon, Dempsey, Nevland, E. Johnson.