The doom and gloom merchants in the summer said that the Europa League would hang like a dark shadow over Fulham’s season. Eventually, it could cost us. It still might, but Roy Hodgson reinforced his squad impressively over the summer. He brought in plenty of midfielders, each of whom has had a role to play over the last six months, but not a defender.
A central defender was the priority in June, with many minds exercised by the prospect of losing Brede Hangeland. But with the Norwegian and Aaron Hughes tied to extended contracts, the defensive departure was that of a rough diamond: young Chris Smalling. There’s a very real chance we’ll never know just how much Manchester United paid for him, especially in these cash-guzzling Glazer days at Old Trafford.
Funnily enough, though, it wasn’t centre back cover that perturbed me over the summer. I’ve been as convinced by Paul Konchesky as others but he’s proved a key part of the side that has taken Fulham to previously untouched heights. When he’s injured, he can see just how much we miss him. I’m not yet ready to write Toni Kallio off – he turned in some great displays for Finland under Hodgson’s instructions and was awesome against Arsenal last season – but a left back would be what I’d be searching for in the closing hours of the transfer window.
John Pantsil was always going to miss some part of the season due to the Africa Cup of Nations. Roy had brought him in Stephen Kelly in the summer precisely to cover Pantsil’s absence. That effectively marked the end of the line for Fredrik Stoor, signed as the first choice after Euro 2008, and now searching for a place to revive his career. Pantsil’s transformation from figure of fun to cult hero is something to behold. You do have your heart in your mouth when he goes for overhead clearance or dallies on the ball sometimes, but he brings the ball forward with great confidence and whips over crosses too. The stats show just how good he’s been – look at his strength in the tackle, those passes and the attempts created, something that signifies Pantsil’s importance as an attacking outlet.
Neither Kelly or Kallio have had particularly impressive stints as stand-ins for these two. It doesn’t help that Pantsil’s probably the best right back Fulham have had since Steve Finnan. The fact that the pair were dropped for Tuesday at Tottenham hints at some frustration at their under-performance at Accrington from Hodgson. Such problems in the full back areas are particularly troublesome with Aston Villa visiting at the weekend.
Martin O’Neill’s side are particularly blessed with pace and talent out wide. Ashley Young scored their equaliser at the Cottage last year and tormented poor old Chris Baird when he was stuck out at right back in the Sanchez season to such an extent that the Northern Ireland international was sent off. I don’t suppose Baird will be relishing the prospect of a repeat. At his best he’s virtually unstoppable. Worryingly for Fulham, he scored against Blackburn in a performance rull of dangerous running and again in the FA Cup tie with Brighton.
Sadly for Hodgson and Fulham, Young’s not the only threat. The consistency of James Milner’s form dictates that he is almost guaranteed to be on the plane to South Africa in the summer and might even have a shot of forcing his way in the first team. Milner’s creativity is becoming widely recognised but his workrate is just as crucial. He certainly doesn’t shirk responsibility but, like all the best players, his vision makes him just as dangerous breaking away on the halfway line as in the final third.
O’Neill could deploy him in central midfield again on Saturday. Milner looks so comfortable there that he’ll pose just as much of a threat in the centre as out wide. Pushing Milner inside would allow Stuart Downing to take one of the wing spots and, having been injured for the first half of the season, the England international has been making up lost time to prove himself after moving from Middlesbrough.
Stopping those three will be a tough task. Nick W speculated after the Chelsea game about potential Pantsil replacements from within the squad, but both sides of our defence are now a worry. It will be interesting to see what Roy does on Saturday.