Andy Johnson’s latest injury setback gives Roy Hodgson a bit of a tactical dilemma ahead of tonight’s tie in Basel. Fulham must beat the Swiss outfit to progress to the knockout phase of the Europa League, but Hodgson has already made it clear he has one eye on Saturday’s league game against Manchester United at Craven Cottage. The fact that he is considering resting the man most likely to partner Bobby Zamora in Johnson’s absence – Clint Dempsey – gives him two ways of playing.
One would be to stick to his guns and leave the American on the bench. Dempsey’s had a long, tough year, having starred at the Confederations Cup for the United States last summer. There won’t be any respite for him come June either, with the USA off to South Africa again for the World Cup. Only the other day Hodgson was talking about how sensible Bob Bradley’s been in his utilisation of Dempsey lately. Without the midfielder-cum-forward, Fulham may well line up in a very similar shape to the way they took the field for their last European game. Zoltan Gera excelled in the hole that night, scoring the only goal as Fulham edged past CSKA Sofia.
But with suspension ruling out Erik Nevland and Diomansy Kamara injured, Hodgson would be forgiven for revisiting the option of pairing Zamora and Dempsey together up front. The two dovetailed well against Blackburn recently – sharing the three goals between themselves – and, with the onus on Fulham to come forward, a traditional 4-4-2 might be the most adventurous choice. It could be too gung ho though. In crucial games before, like the ‘Great Escape’ decider against Portsmouth in his first season in charge, Hodgson was strategically cautious, keen to keep level and confident in his side’s ability to create chances. That speaks to the pragmatist in the Fulham manager and probably his experience on the continent, especially in Italy, where defensive shape is prized above everything else.
Going with a lone striker would allow Hodgson to give his Europa League stars another chance to shine. Jonathan Greening has grown in confidence the longer his run in team has gone on and, after playing very well against Roma at home, he’s not looked daunted at this level. Danny Murphy would be the most obvious replacement for Chris Baird and the Fulham captain seems almost certain to start the contest. Dickson Etuhu is pushing for a recall too, keen to impress now he’s been included in Nigeria’s squad for January’s Africa Cup of Nations.
With Damien Duff likely to start on the bench, it will be interesting to see how Hodgson juggles with his wide resources. The energetic Bjorn Helge Riise has had a good European campaign so far, supplying the crosses for Fulham’s goals against Roma and CSKA Sofia at Craven Cottage. He looks more suited to the right side than the left, which may force Simon Davies across the pitch into a role that filled with great distinction towards the end of the 2007-08 season. Gera could also play on the left should not be asked to be the advanced midfielder, seeking to support Zamora.
Basel showed in the reverse fixture that they are a very useful outfit. Their crisp passing and the movement of an impressive front duo, Marco Streller and Alex Frei, unsettled Fulham and the Swiss side might have been a couple of goals up before we really got going. Basel could count themselves unlucky not to have got something from the game at the Cottage and their European challenge has rather come off the rails since then. They had their own dodgy defeat in Rome, complete with a questionable penalty award, and now need to avoid defeat in order to progress. Coach Thorsten Fink has quashed talk of playing for a draw – perhaps eyeing top spot in the group, which they could land if they better Roma’s result in Sofia.
Should Fulham go out tonight, there will inevitably be a tinge of regret about our Europa League experience. Something that began so promisingly and with such excitement has been soured by the manner of our defeat in Rome and the draw against the Italian side in SW6. Even the usually diplomatic Hodgson, a member of UEFA’s technical study group no less, has railed against what he described as ‘lamentable’ refereeing decisions. Getting this far is a real achievement for a club of Fulham’s stature, but this is no time for resting on our laurels. Let’s leave it all on the field.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Kelly, Hughes, Hangeland; Greening, Murphy, Riise, Davies; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Stockdale, Smalling, Anderson, Etuhu, Dempsey, Duff, Uwezu.