At the time, losing our original date for this game to the weather didn’t seem like such a hardship. Fulham were in the midst of a poor run in the league, had lost key players to injury and were nursing a couple back and the transfer window might allow Roy to bring in a couple of new faces. Boy, how wrong we were. The bad run only continued, the injury crisis just worsened and, bar a last-minute spot of wheeling and dealing, it was a pretty quiet January. Portsmouth’s plight may not have got any better but at least Avram Grant will have his large contingent of African players available tonight.
Coming out of the ground on Saturday with a mate of mine and his father, we mulled over the prospects for this game. Portsmouth would be a tough nut to crack: they wouldn’t just roll over and die. For a start, the fans deserve more and Grant’s a good coach. A few more defeats and we’d be right in the thick of a relegation battle. The players weren’t playing with the kind of scrapping spirit that suggested they would relish the thought at the moment. That might be the glass half full scenario but it’s not exactly unthinkable. Points on the board are needed – and soon.
Hodgson’s task got just that bit tougher on Tuesday afternoon when Zoltan Gera tweaked his knee in training. The Hungarian reckons it’s not too serious but we’ll have to wait for the doctor’s view. The news that Andy Johnson might miss the rest of the season hardly brightened Hodgson’s mood – indeed, he was wondering whether loaning out Diomansy Kamara was a good idea. With Dickson Etuhu yet to return from Angola, that took the number of first-team players unavailable to seven.
Looking for the positives, it gives fringe players a chance to shine. Bjorn Helge Riise was terribly disappointing at Tottenham the other week, looking like a frightened rabbit caught in the headlights. In the absence of Clint Dempsey, he’s the only real alternative to the injured Gera and Simon Davies down the right. He’s produced good performances in front of Stephen Kelly in Europe and, as perhaps our best crosser of a ball behind Davies, could be a potent weapon tonight. Let’s hope he rises to the challenge.
The injury situation means that Roy also has little choice but to throw the new boys straight in. Paul Konchesky will be out for a while, which will give Nicky Shorey the run of first-team football he craves. Forest fans have been raving about our new loan signing, only kept out of the Villa team by a left back I’d take to South Africa (Stephen Warnock), and furious that they didn’t make a serious attempt to extend his emergency loan. The introduction of the former Reading man, capped for England in the not-too-distant past, should allow Kelly, who looked a little lost at left back on Saturday, to move across to the other side of the defence.
Stefano Okaka delivered the best possible send off on Sunday, scoring the goal that kept Roma’s feint title hopes alive as a substitute, and arrived in London full of confidence. He’s pretty raw but has plenty of pace and a point to prove. Hodgson says he’s been tracking Okaka since before the Europa League group stage draw and he does have a track record of bringing on young players – the fact that he and the Roma striker can converse in Italian will help too.
Tonight will also offer further evidence of any agreement between Manchester United and Fulham about Chris Smalling’s first-team participation. It’s not unheard of in transfers like this that the player is committed to get some more experience by the terms of the transfer and Smalling’s still developing as a talent. That much was shown by the way he was brushed aside by Gabby Agbonlahor on Saturday. Our defence has looked out of kilter without Hughes and Hangeland, who has also seemed out-of-sorts lately, in the centre. The visit of Portsmouth is the perfect opportunity to remedy that.
There’s been talk of replacing Chris Baird in midfield, but I’d keep faith with the Ballymena boy. He’s far more dynamic in that role than people realise and has forged a good partnership with Danny Murphy, who showed signs of rediscovering his form on Saturday. Pompey will be up for the fight, as Jamie O’Hara suggested, and have enough quality in their line-up to prolong our miserable run tonight. David James, having seen his understudy move to Stoke on deadline day, will start in goal while Nadir Belhadj, John Yebda and Kanu could all return this evening, although former Fulham pair Michael Brown and Papa Bouba Diop have been ruled out with injury.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, Riise, Duff; Zamora, Okaka. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Stoor, Dikgacoi, Greening, Nevland, Elm.