Sunday sees the return of Premier League football to the Cottage and Fulham’s fourth home game in a row. Steve Bruce’s Sunderland are the visitors and the Black Cats will be hoping to end a dismal run of form away from the Stadium of Light. They’ve picked up just one point from a possible eighteen on the road and have slumped to defeats at Stoke, Burnley, Birmingham and Wigan in that period. Bruce’s side will certainly be a tough nut to crack but with Roy Hodgson able to pick from a far wider pool of players than were available for Thursday’s meeting with CSKA Sofia in the Europa League, there’s no reason why Fulham shouldn’t approach this game with confidence.
Backed by some big money from Sunderland’s new investors, Bruce has set about taking the Mackems onto the next level. He’s bought shrewdly and Fulham’s defence will have to watch the front pairing very carefully. Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones seem the perfect combination in attack. Jones has long been a thorn in Fulham’s side. His aerial power is similar to that of Brian McBride and he has a habit of popping up with important goals – the Trinidad and Tobago international celebrated signing a new contract with the only goal in our away defeat at Sunderland last season.
Bent has been on fire since he swapped north London for the north east and was perhaps unfortunate that his first chance to impress Fabio Capello came against the might of Brazil. Starved of service, he didn’t look like a man who had been terrorising Premier League defences. Bent’s all-round game has improved since he first burst onto the top flight scene as a lone striker at Charlton and his potency in front of goal makes Harry Redknapp’s decision to part with him all the more surprising.
Of course, it’s not just up front that Sunderland have quality. Lorik Cana was an excellent signing to shore up the midfield but he’s more than just an uncompromising hardman. With the likes of Kieron Richardson, Andy Reid and – of course – Steed Malbranque to provide creativity in midfield, the Black Cats will always create chances. There’s an added stability at the back now too with Michael Turner, outstanding in Hull’s first season in the Premier League, another astute addition.
Fulham’s injury crisis might have eased a little after Thursday but there are still a few things to iron out. Danny Murphy looked off the pace against CSKA Sofia, which is excusable having spent so long on the sidelines. His partnership with Chris Baird looked a little forced at times, although they should get another opportunity to gel again on Sunday. Zoltan Gera’s reward for a fine performance will probably be a place on the bench as both Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff, substitutes in midweek, should return to the starting line-up.
The place where’s there a selection poser for Hodgson is probably up front. Bobby Zamora had something of a thankless task in Europe – running himself ragged as a lone striker. Selfless as is he, Zamora stuck to to it manfully, but you do feel that to reap the rewards of Bobby’s industry, he really needs a partner up front. Dempsey has done a sterling job as a makeshift partner of late but Erik Nevland, suspended for Thursday, would probably be a more natural foil for Zamora’s physicality.
Hopefully, Fulham can get out of the traps a little quicker on Sunday than they have done in their previous performances. Slow starts against Birmingham, Blackburn and Bolton have undermined our attempts to consolidate a place in the top half of the table. Hodgson’s half-time team talks (with doubtless a few home truths being thrown in) have produced much improved second half performances but we can’t afford to give sides such as Sunderland a one-goal start. Keeping Bent and Jones quiet will go a long way to securing a point (or more) so both Hangeland and Hughes will need to be on their toes.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Zamora, Nevland. Subs: Stockdale, Smalling, Etuhu, Greening, Davies, Gera, E. Johnson.