How do you follow a performance like Thursday night? Having outclassed a member of Italian football’s aristocracy, even if the prestige has somewhat faded from Juventus in recent years, Fulham face another mouthwatering contest on Sunday with Manchester City coming to Craven Cottage tomorrow afternoon. The fear is that performance levels will inevitably drop after the midweek drama, but that can be assauged by the fact that Roy Hodgson, such a stickler for detail, won’t tolerate any slacking.
The secret of Hodgson’s success this year down by the Thames has been the fact that each member of his well-drilled side knows their role implicitly. With a small squad by the standards of England’s regular European representatives, the manner in which some of the fringe players have stepped up on the continental stage will have greatly impressed Hodgson. Neither Chris Baird or Zoltan Gera would have been considered regulars at the start of the season but both have now made themselves indispensable.
Baird’s display on Thursday was particularly impressive as Fulham needed more than just short, simple passing as they were chasing the game from the off against Juventus. The Northern Ireland international, who has slotted into an unfamiliar central midfield position as if he has been playing there all his life, was outstanding against Juventus. He played plenty of searching forward balls, both looking for Zamora in behind the Italian defence, and locating the lone striker when he came short as well. Without Danny Murphy and Jonathan Greening, Baird was almost Fulham’s de facto playmaker and took on the role with relish.
Gera has been improving as the season has gone on. He’s been a regular scorer of crucial goals during our improbable European run but has also come up with some impressive displays in the league as well. The Hungarian has looked a different player when deployed in his favourite position – between a conventional midfield and a striker – and this is the place where all his lovely flicks, such as the one that released Damien Duff to win the penalty against Juve, can have maximum impact. That he’s dovetailed so well with Bobby Zamora, with both of them so effective in the air, has been a real bonus.
Manchester City won’t be easy by any means. With the race for fourth place tightening with every week, Mancini will be looking for three points tomorrow to maintain City’s charge. He has already talked about the need to make a fast start at the Cottage – to try and put Fulham on the back foot. How the Italian sets out his side will be very interesting indeed.
Wayne Bridge, who had a brief spell on loan at Fulham a few years ago, will be out for around a month having undergone an operation on his hernia and will be replaced by Spaniard Javier Garrido at left back. Mancini has largely played a 4-5-1 since he took over at the City of Manchester Stadium, but the question remains as to whether that system is offensive enough to seize the initiative away from home. City had a brilliant goal from Adam Johnson to thank for snatching a point at Sunderland last time out and, with Emmanuel Adebayor still missing, Roque Santa Cruz would be most likely to profit from any switch to a 4-4-2.
Fulham will need to be at their sharpest in midfield to win the battle in the middle of the park. Even if Patrick Vieira is far from the same formidable force that drove Arsenal to such heights during his last spell in England, Mancini can still call upon Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong to provide stability in central midfield. Calling the England international a holding midfield does scant justice to Barry’s creative ability, but City have plenty of offensively-minded members of their side. Johnson has started his Eastlands career very well indeed and, if you cast your mind back to how Carlos Tevez, Craig Bellamy and Shaun Wright-Phillips tore Chelsea apart a few weeks ago, you’ll be frightened by the prospect of particularly pacy City breaks.
Danny Murphy, suspended for the games against Juventus and troubled by a groin strain of late, should be available for selection tomorrow and the papers suggest that he might replace Dickson Etuhu, who landed awkwardly after a tackle with Momo Sissoko on Thursday night. Jonathan Greening, also available after a European ban, and Kagisho Dikgacoi could be options in central midfield as well.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Dikgacoi, Riise, Dempsey, Nevland, Okaka.