When the draw for the Europa League group stages was made, this was the tie that people were looking forward to. Going to Rome will be amazing, but the very fact that the Gallirosi will be visiting Craven Cottage just blows my mind. That they probably need to win will make the game a real spectacle and it’s all the more astounding that Fulham will go into the third round of fixtures leading the group.
Italian sides, for all their techncial excellence and tactical acumen, don’t usually enjoy facing the physicality of the game when they face English opponents. For that reason alone, the fact that Dickson Etuhu might not be available to thunder into a few tackles in central midfield is a bit of a disappointment. Yet, the more composed and measured Chris Baird deserves a real shot in the engine room – he was solid as a half-time substitute at West Ham a couple of weeks ago and very impressive in Monday’s romp past Hull.
The loss of Danny Murphy will be just as significant. The Fulham captain is the heartbeat of our side, the man who most of our attacks flow through and creative hub capable of unlocking the most resolute of defences. Murphy’s absence offers an opportunity for the on-loan Jonathan Greening to come in and prove his worth in one of the season’s most important games. The West Brom midfielder hasn’t really impressed in his brief Fulham career and a game against Roma would be as good a time as any to rectify that.
You get the sense that, against a depleted Roma, the tempo will be key. If Fulham can play the game at Premier League pace then they could well unsettle Roma’s defence, which looked very wobbly at the San Siro at the weekend, with a few frenetic attacks. In the absence of Andy Johnson, there should be another chance for the Bobby Zamora-Diomansy Kamara partnership to impress up front. Zamora’s aerial ability will test the durability of the Italian defence and Kamara, who has talked up his scoring record against Roma in the build-up to this game, has the pace to cause problems in behind.
Much of Fulham’s threat came from the returning Damien Duff on Monday night. The Irish winger was full of running all evening and could have had a couple of goals himself from long-range before his shot led to Fulham’s first goal. Anyone who thought we had signed a busted flush might now be reconsidering their verdict. Duff’s got plenty to play for with a potential place in an Irish World Cup side to win – and a sense of something to prove at the highest level after injuries and the Newcastle bubble saw his career stall somewhat.
Clint Dempsey looked badly in need of a rest again on Monday, although he could have had two second-half goals. The American is a vicitm of his own – and his country’s success – and a hectic international schedule now seems to be catching up with him. Ironically, bringing in the man he replaced early last season, Zoltan Gera, wouldn’t be a bad option. The Hungarian looked very sharp when he replaced Duff against Arsenal and followed that up with a fine performance at Upton Park.
It’s far from certain what side Ranieri will put out. Injury has robbed up him of his talisman in Francesco Totti while centre back Juan and full-back Marco Motta are also missing. Roma seemed to have recovered from an abysmal start to the season that saw Luciano Spalletti, who was sought after in the summer, leave. The Italians’ strength is quite clearly in midfield with the promptings of the vastly improved Daniele De Rossi, who was up for sale at the start of the season, the versatile Simone Perrotta and the dangerous Rodrigo Taddei on the wing.
Those threats will mean Fulham will have to be on their toes. How Hodgson decides to set his team up is still open to debate. It might well be that the Fulham manager chooses to rest a few of his key players with a tough trip to Eastlands on Sunday. Chris Smalling has looked very promising in his two European outings this season and is likely to partner either Aaron Hughes or Brede Hangeland at the heart of the defence with Chris Baird, his regular European partner, expected to line-up in midfield. I’d quite like to see Bjorn-Helge Riise line up against his brother but I’m sure such sentiment won’t cloud Roy’s jugement.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Smalling, Hangeland; Baird, Greening, Gera, Duff; Zamora, Kamara. Subs: Foderingham, Kelly, Hughes, Riise, Saunders, Nevland, Uwezu.