Tonight’s game against Burnley is vital for Fulham. Not just in the short-term sense of keeping up our improved form, with four points from attritional fixtures against Portsmouth and Bolton in four days, but also in determining the direction of the rest of our season. How so? Well, we saw last season how Roy Hodgson became more adventurous in his tactics – particularly away from home – once safety was achieved. There’s no reason to doubt that, injuries permitting, the wily old fox would be more willing to fully commit to our FA Cup and Europa League runs if a couple more wins nudged us closer to the 38-40 point mark.
Recent signs have been encouraging for Hodgson. Fulham were much tighter defensively at the Reebok on Saturday than they were in an alarming first half against Pompey at the Cottage and clung on at the end for a big point. It’s no secret that Roy plays with much less caution down by the Thames and a Burnley side that could justifiably sniff a chance of recording their first away win in the Premier League will be typically obdurate opponents.
Just how Hodgson sets up his side will depend on the ongoing injury nightmare. At least Bobby Zamora will be back to lead the line, having missed the trip to Lancashire with a virus. Simon Davies could be in contention to play down the right as well, which could be very timely indeed if Zoltan Gera fails to recover in time from the injury he picked up in training last week. Whether Hodgson will risk the Welshman, who was forced off early against Aston Villa with a recurrence of the foot problem that has plagued him for the past eighteen months, is something of a moot point.
There can be no denying that Fulham are without a number of key players, though, and Kagisho Dikgacoi is the latest to face a lengthy lay-off having been forced out of the Bolton game with an ankle injury. The Whites are fortunate that Dickson Etuhu is able to step straight into the South African’s place as the anchor of our midfield quartet, especially as Chris Baird – excellent in that role so far this season – is likely to pressed into service at right back again, ahead of the underperforming Stephen Kelly.
Of course, the possible return of Davies or Gera could mean that Jonathan Greening returns to the substitutes bench, which would be harsh on the on-loan midfielder. He’s played a more noticeable role since having a shave (though I’m sure the two are unrelated!) and has demonstrated his versatility by filling the left midfield berth in the last two matches. He popped up to score his second goal from a strikingly similar position against Portsmouth in as many seasons and covered plenty of ground at Bolton a few days later.
Hodgson’s conumdrum is who to play alongside Zamora up front. Stefano Okaka should be fairly fresh after the briefest of runs up at the Reebok and must be the favourite to play alongside Bobby, especially in the light of Erik Nevland’s disappointing display on Saturday. Okaka, though still incredibly inexperienced, looks like a lively customer, showing his spirit for the fight with a lengthy bit of tracking back to recover possession at Bolton, which he followed with a mazy dribble.
A few people have been perturbed by Hodgson’s admission that he hasn’t studied Burnley too closely. While it strikes me as a public statement that’s very unlike Roy, the point he was trying to get across was that the Clarets’ style hasn’t changed much despite the switch from Owen Coyle to Brian Laws in the dugout. Laws had made some excellent additions in the transfer window and Danny Fox, whose fledging career went backwards north of the border, made a real impact against West Ham at the weekend. Hangeland and Hughes will also need to watch out for the rejuvanated David Nugent, capped for England under Steve McClaren, who looks to have rediscovered that precious poacher’s instinct.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Greening, Duff; Zamora, Okaka. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Kelly, Davies, Riise, Nevland, Elm.