After one tough game comes another. Hot on the heels of our late heartbreak against Roma on Thursday, Fulham travel to Manchester City for one of their toughest tests of the season. Bigspending City have made a flying start to the campaign and made a mockery of all those pundits who suggested that all their new signings would need time to gel and it could take three or four years to break the top four. Ridiculously dangerous going forward and tighter at the back than you might expect, Mark Hughes has moulded his side into a formidable unit.
The trip to Eastlands will represent a real test for some tired minds and bodies. Roy Hodgson will be keen to welcome back some of those he rested for Roma with this game in mind. Both Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff should return to the starting line-up, but the continuing absence of Danny Murphy is a real blow. Without the captain at the heart of our midfield, Fulham lack that little bit of guile to unlock a resolute defence – something so important when chances are likely to be at a premium.
City’s home record is excellent and might dampen some of the enthusiasm of the Fulham fans travelling north (the Whites have recorded surprise wins on their last two league visits and came close to making it a hat-trick with a reserve side in the League Cup last month). They have won their last six games at Eastlands, handily disposing of Arsenal and West Ham already this season. Mark Hughes has seen his team score in every league game this season and he has a glittering array of attacking talent to unleash on unfortunate opponents. Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy will all be competing for players up front and Bellamy especially has been in inspired form this season.
The presence of Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry has given City’s midfield some extra solidity this season. Martin Jol thought Hamburg had got the better of the deal when City paid big money to bring the Dutch holding midfielder to England but, as he’s adapted to the physicality and the pace of our game, de Jong has proven an astute signing. Barry offers more in an attacking sense to City than he does to England, where he occupies a deeper role until Capello, and Fulham should pay particular attention to his late bursts into the box tomorrow afternoon. It says it all about City’s strength at the moment that their best player from last season, Stephen Ireland, can’t get into their best team at the moment.
Countering such a multitude of threats is certainly a daunting task. Hodgson is likely to stick the same system that has brought rewards and engineered such a turnaround in Fulham’s fortune in such a short space of time. It is encouraging to see a 4-4-2 on the road, although I’d like us to be as adventurous as we were at West Ham when the Cottagers came so close to claiming all three points. Sitting back and trying to hold onto a point strikes me as something of a suicidal strategy when you come to a place like Eastlands. An early goal demands a change of tactics and you’re left looking for a new gameplan.
If Fulham are to rekindle either of their famous wins at City (and hopefully we won’t have to go 2-0 down to do it this time), Hodgson’s team will have to be defensively sound. Hopefully, the substitution of Paul Konchesky at half time on Thursday was merely a precaution because Hodgson doesn’t have a natural replacement in his first-team squad. Both Pantsil and Kelly have looked a little shaky as makeshift left backs and it would be a big boost to see Konch line up on the left. Hughes and Hangeland were wonderfully solid on Thursday and Pantsil’s emergence as a genuine Premier League full-back was one of the stories of last season.
Midfield will be a real testing area for Fulham tomorrow. Chris Baird was mightily impressive against Roma – and Nick W in the comments was right to highlight his extraordinary range of passing. The Northern Ireland international might not be as physical as Dickson Etuhu but he’s very brave and brings real aerial ability to the centre of the park. I thought Greening had his best game in a Fulham shirt against the Italians. He was everywhere, sliding into tackles and firing in shots. Indeed, the on-loan midfielder was unfortunate not to score on at least two ocassions. Those two should start in central midfield, probably with Duff and Dempsey, who you sense needs a performance to retain his place, on the flanks.
It was quite something to hear so people singing Bobby Zamora’s praises over the past couple of days. Plenty of brickbats have flown his way over the last year or so, but Bobby certainly brings something to the party. He was virtually unplayable against Hull and Roma – and our attacking threat receeded dramatically once Hodgson took him off on Thursday. Perhaps the goal against Hull gave him a real confidence boost, but he was outstanding in the Europa League in the week. Diomansy Kamara wasn’t as impressive but neither the defenders nor him know what he’s likely to do next – and we all know what he did at Eastlands a couple of years ago.
It’s one hell of a tough ask but Fulham often produce results when they are least expected. Gaining a point would be a terrific achievement.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Greening, Dempsey, Duff; Zamora, Kamara. Subs: Stockdale, Smalling, Kelly, Riise, Gera, Andranik, Nevland.