Momentum can be something of an overused term in sport, but it often make can the difference between victory and defeat. Fulham will be looking to cash in on any bounce from their first league win in a while on Wednesday at the Reebok Stadium with further success tomorrow afternoon, although Bolton themselves seem much improved under the stewardship of Owen Coyle. It’s not very often that meetings between these two sides have people licking their lips in anticipation but this fixture has the potential to be a really good contest.
Just a few days ago, Roy Hodgson’s side had the look of a patched-up, world-weary outfit. Their losing streak appeared to have end in sight – and neither did an injury crisis that the most genial of managers described as the worst he’d known in his 34 years of management. That injury situation has far from abated – Fulham will still be without their three goalscorers from last year’s shock victory in Lancashire (which was their first league win on the road) for example – but there’s a list a little less of a panicked look about Hodgson’s selection with two loan signings in Nicky Shorey and Stefano Okaka to bolster a fragile looking line-up.
Both would be expected to start tomorrow. Shorey stole the show with a rampaging performance at left back against Portsmouth, pushing forward to great effect and giving the injured Paul Konchesky a bit of food for thought. He linked up nicely with Jonathan Greening, who had appeared a cautious choice to fill the right midfield role that has usually belonged to Clint Dempsey, Zoltan Gera or Simon Davies this season – but eventually popped up with the vital winner. As a result, the on-loan midfielder might just reprise his burgeoning partnership with Shorey and keep Bjorn Helge Riise on the bench.
Okaka still strikes me as much more of a work in progress. Hodgson himself has acknowledged the Italian under-21 striker remains raw and has sought to alleviate much of the pressure the Roma forward may feel, especially after missing that close range header on Wednesday. Okaka’s obviously still learning the game – and he will soon note from David Elm – that there’s a bit of transition time when it comes to acclimatising to English football, even if he showed a willingness to put himself about that bodes well. There’s a chance that Erik Nevland could have shaken off a toe injury to stake a starting claim but I’d like Hodgson to be bold and stick with the youngster up front.
The only other selection conundrum surrounds Stephen Kelly, who had a rather wretched hour or so on Wednesday. Whilst Fulham improved markedly once the poor Irishman was replaced by Kagisho Dikgacoi and Chris Baird switched to right back, I’d be tempted to keep the former Birmingham full back in his place for now. A run of games can bring confidence and I still haven’t forgotten quite how worrying it was to see Baird at right back. As impressive as Dikgacoi’s arrival from the bench was, Baird’s been playing superbly in midfield this season and certainly doesn’t merit being dropped.
Bolton certainly will be up for this one. Kevin Davies, who always seems to save his most infuriatingly potent performances for games against Fulham, has targeted this fixture as one where the Wanderers can look to pick up maximum points. Coyle has been wise enough not to try and overhaul the worst elements of Gary Megson’s direct style overnight but you get the sense that both players and fans are more comfortable with one of their own in their dugout now, even if the former Trotter’s move from Burnley did raise a few eyebrows.
Wanderers might have lost three times under Coyle’s stewardship – but those defeats came at the hands of Arsenal and Liverpool, with at least two of them being particularly harsh. The squad at his disposal should be good enough to comfortably beat the drop with the likes of Jussi Jaaskelainen, Gary Cahill, Fabrice Muamba, Matty Taylor, Davies and Ivan Klasnic – a scorer when Megson picked up a point at Fulham before Christmas – all proven performers at this level. No doubt this will be one where the boys will have to roll their sleeves up and scrap.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, Duff, Greening; Zamora, Okaka. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Stoor, Dikgacoi, Riise, Nevland, Elm.