First, some important news. The Stoke ticket office say this morning that they are confident that the came will go ahead despite obvious concerns over the cold weather we’ve been having of late. Since the original date for this match was pushed back to Fulham’s European committments, it would be nice to play this one tonight. Once we get over the questions about whether the game’s on, you turn to thinking about whether Roy Hodgson’s side can come away from the Britannia Stadium with a result.
Points are sorely needed from the next few games (especially our forthcoming away fixtures) if Fulham are to cement a place in the top half. We’ve lamented our poor away record so many times that it’s now almost a cliche, regardless of how well Roy Hodgson’s shored things up since his arrival a couple of Christmases ago. It’s no coincidence that our best results away from home under Hodgson have come when he’s been confident that job number one has been done – and Fulham will remain in the top flight. When he throws off the shackles (you do always get the impression that we’re primarily set up to try and stop the opposition from scoring away from the Cottage) and lets the boys express themselves, we look a far more threatening side. Whether Hodgson will be willing to do that tonight to some extent, only time will tell.
Perhaps his team selection might tell us something too. Zoltan Gera’s been in excellent form in the absence of Andy Johnson. There’s some debate about where he’s been playing – whether he’s been a conventional striker or operated just behind Bobby Zamora. I’d go for the latter and he’s shown why playing in ‘the hole’ is his natural position with a string of fine displays. Zamora’s been excellent as a lone striker, too, ever since he bagged a couple of goals in Basel and fired Fulham towards a European test against Shakhtar Donetsk.
Fulham might not have won either of their last two league games, but you couldn’t fault the quality of the performances. Andy Johnson has featured in our last two fixtures, as a substitute against Chelsea, and a starter against Swindon – and Hodgson’s description of him and Zamora as his first choice striking partnership has some people wondering whether we’ll revert back to the 4-4-2 of old. There’s logic in Hodgson’s argument that Zamora and AJ got Fulham to that seventh place finish, but I’d still be surprised to see Johnson start another game just three days after playing 83 minutes in the FA Cup.
You’d expect most of the first-teamers rested for the visit of Swindon to return. Damien Duff faded in the second half at Chelsea, but has been outstanding since he signed from Newcastle. Danny Murphy’s still the heartbeat of the Fulham midfield and Chris Baird’s sterling performances in both the skipper and Dickson Etuhu’s absence have made him undroppable. Hodgson’s only other injury doubt is over Brede Hangeland, who missed both the Chelsea and Swindon games after playing through the pain of a long-term knee problem that flared up again in the warm-up against Tottenham on Boxing Day. It would be nice to have the Norwegian as a safeguard against Rory Delap’s long throws, but Chris Smalling’s not let anybody down on first-team duty and you feel the youngster c0uld really benefit from a run in the side.
As Stephen Kelly, who side deputise for the injured John Pantsil tonight against one of his old sides, has pointed out, Stoke’s far from an easy place to go. Tony Pulis has done a remarkable job in keeping a side many predicted to be heading straight back down comfortably above water in the Premier League. Those who dismiss his success as a result of being too physical or direct should watch the ways the likes of Matthew Etherington and Liam Lawrence use the ball on the ground, too. The arrival of Tuncay, a classy player who has never quite realised his potential as you might have expected, hinted at an evolution of Stoke’s playing style. Ricardo Fuller’s a master goalpoacher, too, and City will desperate to end a three-match losing streak in the league, which has seen them fail to find the net. What are the odds of them putting that record right tonight?
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Stockdale, Smalling, Greening, Riise, Dikgacoi, A. Johnson, Nevland.