Roy Hodgson’s taken a bit of stick over the past 24 hours on the various Fulham messageboards as it has become clear that Fulham will make wholesale changes for our first Europa League Group E fixture against CSKA Sofia tonight. I can see where the critics are coming from – and feel for those hardy souls who have made the long trip out to Bulgaria – but the manager’s logic seems fairly sound to me.
First of all, it isn’t as though Hodgson will be playing a team of kids and people we’ve never heard of. There will be a fair few full internationals out there this evening wanting to impress the manager enough to ensure that they get a few more chances in the first team this season. Take Bjorn Helge Riise for example. Whether he said what did about Damien Duff and his skill levels, he was clearly unhappy to be warming the bench in the early stages of the campaign. This would be an ideal opportunity to demonstrate his qualities on a big stage and earn a bigger role in Fulham’s season.
If – as Rich has suggested on CCN – we are going to revert back to Roy’s old policy of getting men behind the ball and playing for a draw then the personnel is less important than the strategy. Playing Kamara, who will have certainly have a point to prove having been denied the chance to move to Newcastle on loan, and Nevland together up front would give us the necessary invention to fashion a few chances on the break and will also give the fans an opportunity to observe whether the pair can continue their good understanding from the tail end of last season.
There’s also plenty of interest at the opposite end of the pitch too. If we are saving Mark Schwarzer and his stiff neck for Wolves on Sunday, then this would present the perfect stage for David Stockdale to continue on from his impressive debut at Everton. The young goalkeeper’s got potential but given the atmosphere that he’ll be likely to face this will be a tough test of his mettle. The other option is, of course, the veteran Swiss international Pascal Zuberbuhler, but it is a measure of how assured Stockdale was on his debut that I would be more comfortable with the 23-year-old in goal.
Given that John Pantsil has travelled – and you would imagine that Roy would have to work hard to persuade our right-back that he needs a rest – we can assume that he will play. Stephen Kelly didn’t look all that comfortable at left back the last time he was used there (in the second leg against Perm) but we should give our new Irish defender some leeway as that’s far from his natural position. I’d like to see Chris Smalling get a go at centre back. He’s been capped by the England Under-21s already this season and – having made just one appearance for the first team – that is a real measure of how highly the young lad is rated. Perhaps pairing him with Chris Baird at the heart of defence would give us a good blend of youth and experience in those key positions, although Roy might prefer to play the Northern Ireland international in a deeper lying central midfield role to break up the play.
Hodgson has apparently hinted in press interviews that he might be able to field 11 full internationals this evening, which, by reckoning would mean that the likes of Stockdale and Greening, could miss out. Midfield will be an interesting dilemma for the manager, though. Greening will obviously be keen to make up for what was a below-par debut at Villa when the whole side was suffering from their exertions in Perm a few days earlier. I guess it is the experience of that rather lethargic defeat that made Hodgson’s mind up for him with another league game scheduled for the weekend. He could play Riise in central midfield, while I’d put money on Zoltan Gera to start after Roy talked him up in the pre-match build up. Whether Simon Davies is fit enough to play from the start or be introduced later remains to be seen.
CKSA Sofia, our opponents tonight, have rather been forgotten in all this discussion about our team selection. They will be very tough opponents on Bulgarian soil – if not their home ground – and appear confident ahead of the game. They have every reason to be. CSKA have made a fine start to the season under their relatively new coach Lyuboslav Penev and currently sit top of the domestic table with four wins from their five games. Their only dropped games came in a goalless draw at Blagoevgrad on Saturday. It should be an intriguing contest.
PROBABLE FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Stockdale; Pantsil, Kelly, Smalling, Baird; Greening, Riise, Davies, Gera; Nevland, Kamara.