Chelsea away; nine years in the Premier League and it’s still the fixture that Fulham fans look for first. It’s been twenty years since we won at Stamford Bridge and still we find reasons to convince ourselves that this might be the year. They have been plenty of memorable moments there since we returned to the top flight – Louis Saha’s electrifying pace on our first visit and Luis Boa Morte’s late equaliser spring to mind – but only one real near miss. The goalless draw just after Chelsea had sacked Jose Mourinho when Paul Konchesky and Diomansy Kamara missed glorious late chances was perhaps our best chance to earn the bragging rights.
Plenty of people coming away from the Cottage yesterday were suggesting that Monday might be the day. Fulham look as solid in defence as they ever have. The clean sheet against Spurs, who only belatedly brought the best out of Mark Schwarzer, meant we’ve only conceded 17 goals in our 18 league fixtures so far this season and that’s all the more impressive considering our run to the knockout stages of the Europa League. Brede Hangeland bravely battled against the pain of an injured knee to keep Peter Crouch and co at bay and he and Hughes will need to put in another sterling performance tomorrow afternoon.
Damien Duff’s a lot more used to the way Fulham play than he was when Chelsea came down the King’s Road for an early season visit to the Cottage in a damp squib of a derby. The Irish winger, who so nearly fashioned a late winner against Tottenham, will doubtless want to prove a point at the home of his former employers and the buzz of expectation as he ran at the visiting defence yesterday afternoon showed that he’s got the ability to create something out of nothing. With Clint Dempsey, who has a habit of grabbing crucial goals against Chelsea, and an increasingly effective Zoltan Gera, in advanced positions, you are no longer wondering where the chances will come from as one might have been in the Sanchez and Coleman sides.
Chelsea are still well clear at the top of the table but there are whispers about a poor run of form. Whilst Joe Hart was outstanding at St. Andrew’s yesterday to keep Birmingham’s undefeated streak going, Carlo Ancelotti’s side haven’t been pulling up any trees of late. In danger of becoming the new draw specialists now that Manchester City have parted company with Mark Hughes, Chelsea have drawn six of their last seven outings – their only victory a surprisingly hard-fought success over lowly Portsmouth.
Surprisingly there have been question marks about their usually watertight defence of late. Ancelotti hasn’t seemed able to cure the set-piece problems that so afflicted the Scolari side, whilst John Terry has gone through a bit of a sticky patch at the heart of the back four. Rather now than in the summer, I guess. Factor in some less than commanding goalkeeping displays from Petr Cech and there might be a few worries amongst the Matthew Harding stand faithful.
Frank Lampard – for all the booing and baiting – always seems to have a good game against Fulham. Chelsea’s relative riches in midfield are ridiculous really. Deco might not have kicked on as he suggested he could have done after a brilliant start to his Premier League, but the little Portuguese is still a terrific player. Michael Essien might be injured but he’s one of the best enforcers in the league – even if such a deployment might limit his ability to get forward and unleash one of those thunderbolts. Then there’s Jon Obi Mikel, Michael Ballack or the returning Joe Cole to fit into the midfield.
Having been rather excited that we might only have to face Daniel Sturridge, who seems to have gone off the boil since he burst onto the scene with Manchester City, and Franco Borini up front, it appears as though the Chelsea Ivory Coast contingent will be given permission to play before jetting off for the Africa Cup of Nations. That means that Fulham will need to keep a close eye on Didier Drogba, who – despite his pantomine diving – has a knack of scoring crucial goals against Fulham, and Salomon Kalou. This should be a real test of just where Roy Hodgson’s side are at the moment.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Stockdale, Kallio, Smalling, Etuhu, Riise, A. Johnson, Nevland.