Anybody foolish enough to take too much optimism with them to Wearside on Sunday needs to remember just how good Fulham have been at playing people into form this season. Gareth Bale hadn’t won a Premier League match in his three years at Tottenham before we allowed the Welsh full-back to orchestrate a win at White Hart Lane, Blackburn ended a worrying winless run against us at Ewood Park and the trait can be traced back several years.
Pressure seems to be building on Steve Bruce at the Stadium of Light. From afar, it seems like Ellis Short doesn’t tolerate failure. It didn’t look like Sunderland’s new owner would have much to worry about during some heady autumn months as the Mackems roared off with all the accleration of one of those TGV trains. Sunderland rocketed towards the upper reaches of the table, fired by the goals of Darren Bent and there was a solidity about their midfield that never really existed under Roy Keane. Bruce brought Lee Cattermole with him from Wigan and paired him with the tenacious and yet talented Lorik Cana, a notable capture from Marseille.
Slowly but surely things started to unravel, though. Bruce blamed Liverpool for unsettling Kenwyne Jones, unplayable on his day but someone who sometimes plays in the relaxed manner of many a Trindadian, but there have been whispers of dressing room unrest. Certainly Steed Malbranque has faded after a promising start to the campaign and was widely tipped to move on last month. Bruce looks set to welcome back the fiesty Cattermole into midfield as he seeks to end an alarming 14-match winless run that stretches back to the day a beachball-assisted Bent strike beat Liverpool.
Being drawn into another relegation battle would probably prompt Short into replacing his manager and, although you’d think Sunderland have far too much quality to be pulled into such a scrap, they are currently just three points above Bolton Wanderers, who sit in 18th place. When you consider that the Black Cats can call upon the likes of Craig Gordon, Anton Ferdinand, Michael Turner, Kieron Richardson and Andy Reid, it’s not hard to find yourself agreeing with the perception that Sunderland are underachieving.
That being said, it certainly won’t be easy for Hodgson’s side, especially after their European exploits on Thursday night. You get the sense that Premier League opposition still target home games against Fulham as real opportunities to pick up three points and it has been our travel sickness that has somewhat undermined our bid to establish ourselves as top ten finishers in recent years. The Stadium of Light will be buzzing with hope, if not belief, and Fulham will have to have their wits about them.
How Hodgson lines up might also have some bearing on the game. Stephen Kelly did well at left back against Shakhtar but it’s inconceivable that the Irishman will keep Nicky Shorey out of Sunday’s line-up. The on-loan full-back might just have a sniff of an England recall now that Wayne Bridge has opted out of international football, although he hardly needs an incentive to perform, with Fulham holding an option to sign the former Reading defender permanently in the summer. Chris Baird should start at right back again.
The composition of the midfield might well remain the same, unless Hodgson sees fit to rest one of his wide midfielders who did so much backtracking in Donetsk. That could neccesitate a move into a wider role for Zoltan Gera, who has excelled in the hole this season, and those of us who have been underwhelmed by Dickson Etuhu’s displays since his return from the African Nations Cup will be hoping for an imposing performance from the Nigerian as he returns to one of his old stomping grounds.
Hodgson’s biggest poser will come up front. Should he decide to stick with the 4-4-1-1 formation that has worked so well since a lack of strikers prompted it’s introduction before Christmas, then you’d fancy the beanpole David Elm to plough a lone farrow rather than the raw Stefano Okaka if Bobby Zamora fails to beat his Achilles injury.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera; Elm. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Kelly, Riise, Greening, Nevland, Elm.