Despite four straight defeats, Fulham are still in the top half of the table, progressing nicely in the FA Cup and in Europe and have a run of home fixtures to offset our awful away form. But no amount of ‘blue sky thinking’ will prevent their being a tangible air of tension around tomorrow’s game with Aston Villa as injuries and sudden lack of confidence threaten to turn a promising season into an anxious one.
Roy Hodgson’s side haven’t picked up a point in 2010 and you’d have to go back to just after Christmas and their narrow defeat at Chelsea for their last strong showing. Fulham’s cause hasn’t been helped by injuries to key players – they could be without John Pantsil, Paul Konchesky, Clint Dempsey and Andy Johnson again tomorrow – but their also seems to a fragility in place of the resolute defence that supported the surge to a European place last year.
Four successive away defeats are not unusual for Fulham, but the manner of their capitulation at Blackburn and Spurs was disappointing. Nor is it as simple as just returning to Craven Cottage, where the Whites home record remains impressive. The bear facts tell you that Villa have failed to score in their last four league games, but when you consider that they’ve played Arsenal (twice) and Liverpool in that sequence, it doesn’t look so bad. Martin O’Neill’s side were particularly impressive against the Gunners in midweek and will desperate to make up ground on the sides above them on Saturday.
O’Neill’s dealings in the transfer market have been pretty savvy and the manager himself should take plenty of credit for Villa’s resurgence under Randy Lerner, the quiet American owner who could give the Glazers invaluable lessons about being accepted at a Premier League. Eyebrows were raised when O’Neill moved to Villa Park from Blackburn, largely because of his age, but as we have seen with Mark Schwarzer here at Fulham, age is no barrier, especially in a goalkeeper’s case. Friedel is a strange one: he’s undoubtedly one of the best keepers in the Premier League, but never really exuded assurance at Liverpool.
O’Neill’s reworked the Villa defence too. Yes, he might have paid more than £3m for Zat Knight, but having shipped the former Fulham defender out to Bolton, he’s even managed to cover the loss of Martin Larsson. Richard Dunne is surely the signing of the season, but with James Collins pressing Carlos Cuellar for a spot alongside the Irish international and Curtis Davies still progressing nicely, the central defence looks very well staffed.
The manager’s policy of being young, English talent has been commended frequently, particularly as it often means paying over-the-odds for players who haven’t quite proved themselves. It needed a big fee to persuade Watford to part with Ashley Young, but the speedy winger is nigh on unstoppable on his day. James Milner was inecxplicably ignored by a succession of Newcastle managers and has flourished under O’Neill’s management, showing his talent and versatility in equal measure. Stewart Downing, brought in from Middlesbrough, has yet to overcome a serious injury to return to the line-up but he’s now going about justifying the faith shown in him. Having Stilyian Petrov, once derided as not being good enough for the Premier League, anchoring the midfield means such adventure isn’t as dangerous as it might have been.
John Carew, he of the failed Fulham medical, might be missing tomorrow but Villa do have striking riches. Gabby Agbonlahor always looks lively up front and Emile Heskey will have his club place to play for, not to mention his spot as Fabio Capello’s number one target man. Nathan Delfouneso has demonstrated his potential in a few league and European outings and could make an impact from the bench. Former Villa defender Aaron Hughes will have his work cut out for him, whether Hodgson reprises Tuesday’s experiment and plays him at right back, or opts to play him in his natural role at centre back.
Hodgson’s selection will be interesting. Chris Baird did a decent job at left back at White Hart Lane, but we missed his presence in midfield alongside an off-colour Danny Murphy. While the options box might be thin, I’d be tempted to go back to the full backs who started the game against Accrington. At least they’ll be better able to contain the threat coming down Villa’s flanks and prepared to go forward. Simon Davies should replace Bjorn-Helge Riise, who froze at Tottenham in midweek. In the absence of Andy Johnson, Hodgson may continue with Zoltan Gera just behind Bobby Zamora, who will have had a few more days of training behind him. The likes of Diomansy Kamara and Erik Nevland could provide attacking options from the bench.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, Kallio, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, S. Davies, Duff; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Dikgacoi, Greening, Riise, Nevland, Kamara.