Bit of a debate as I had a chat with a couple of Fulham fans yesterday morning. Which of our next two games is the bigger? Obviously, an FA Cup quarter final against Tottenham is pretty big, especially with the chance of an exceedingly rare trip to Wembley dangled right in front of us on Saturday night? But everyone seems to be looking forward to Thursday night in Turin, when ‘little old Fulham’ (copyright ITV4) take on the mighty Juventus in the last sixteen of the Europa League.
Roy Hodgson has said he’s now going to be targeting the Cups, particularly after another hard-earned point at Sunderland took Fulham closer to Premier League safety. Even though the Whites reached the FA Cup quarter finals last year and generally don’t have too bad a record in the competition since returning to the top flight, an excursion to the latter stages of the world’s oldest club Cup still seems exhilirating. Of course, everybody will be avoid to avoid the stage fright that seemed to afflict Fulham at this stage last season: fading alarmingly after a bright start to be humbled 4-0 by Manchester United.
I was surprised to read earlier of Tottenham’s poor recent record at Craven Cottage. Their last nine visits have brought only one win, although that was a real thumping at a similar stage of the FA Cup. You do get the sense that these Spurs are something of a different proposition to the teams managed by Jacques Santini, Martin Jol or Juande Ramos. Harry Redknapp has set Tottenham on course to be more consistent challengers for a Champions’ League spot than any of his predecessors whilst still playing the kind of pretty football that the White Hart Lane punters demand.
There’s no doubt Tottenham will be a tricky proposition. They disposed of us quite comfortably at the Lane back in January and, with our patchy away record, the last thing the pessismistic Fulham fan will fancy is a replay. Games at the Cottage are generally close, though, and – had it not been for a string of fine saves from the much-mocked Huruelho Gomes – then Hodgson’s side would have picked up three points rather than just one on Boxing Day. The key to stopping Spurs will be getting to their creative players in midfield, the likes of Krancjar and Modric, who can kill you if they are allowed too much time and space in which to operate.
Another thing operating in Fulham’s favour is the packed nature of the Tottenham treatment room. Things might not be as bad as when a virus struck down the Spurs squad before last weekend’s game against Everton but Redknapp will still be missing a few key players. Aaron Lennon, the tricky winger who at last looks like he’s found a final ball to match that blistering pace, is expected to be out for the next six weeks or so, and midfield seems to be where most of the problems are. Tom Huddlestone has been ruled out after coming off against the Toffees, whilst Jermaine Jenas has just undergone an operation on his groin, so just who will partner Wilson Palacios, presuming the Honduran is picked as he’s a booking away from a suspension, remains to be seen. Redknapp’s mood will hardly have been improved by seeing Gareth Bale limp off for Wales on Wednesday night with an ankle problem that was immediately being treated with an icepack. The youngster’s absence, considering the manner in which he tore through Fulham earlier this year, would be a real tonic for Hodgson’s side.
You wouldn’t expect Hodgson to change too much from the side that lined up at Sunderland. The fatigue from Donetsk will be well out of their system and most of that eleven have had a week’s worth of rest. There have been no reported injuries picked up by those on international duty and consistency in selection has been something that has helped produce the dizzying success that Fulham have enjoyed over the last couple of seasons. Paul Konchesky completed 70 minutes for the reserves on Tuesday, but it would be a big surprise if the left back replaced the in-form Nicky Shorey come Saturday evening.
Fulham have produced some impressive performances at the Cottage this season. Manchester United, Liverpool and Shakhtar have all been beaten largely by the tempo at which the Whites played. The speed of our football will be key as will the ability of players and fans alike to remain patient. Long-suffering Fulham fans will know that chances like this don’t come along too often: it’s up to us to take it.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Kelly, Greening, Riise, Okaka, Elm.