As Tor pointed out yesterday, Fulham just don’t do well at Goodison Park. If tomorrow afternoon’s game wasn’t already an end-of-season outing what with the return leg against Hamburg the more pressing priority, our 22-match winless streak in the leg would ensure that there wouldn’t be too much optimism on the trip up to Merseyside.
The journey shouldn’t prove quite as ardurous as the 27 hour-marathon coach ride to Germany made necessary by the Icelandic volcanic eruptions, but – by the same token – the result is unlikely to be as satisfying. Everton might be a bit hit and miss but the canny David Moyes has navigated his side back towards European football despite an alarming start to the season and a dehabilitating injury crisis.
The Scot began his managerial career in the blue half of Merseyside with a rather routine victory over Fulham at Goodison and it has been largely serene progress ever since. Not many clubs could such a prodigious talent as Wayne Rooney and emerge stronger, but Everton arguably have. There are still the snipes at Bill Kenwright and worries over the long-term location of their ground but the Toffees remain a likeable, well-run football club with a hardworking side full of quality players.
This season the departure of Joleon Lescott looked to throw a serious spanner in the works but as the one-time World Cup hopeful’s Manchester City career got off to a disastrous start, Everton went from strength to strength. Phil Jagielka, an emminently impressive figure even before he showed fortitude to return from a serious injury that had ruled him out of last season’s FA Cup final, and Sylvain Distin have a forged a solid partnership even if the defence has let in a few more goals than a perfectionist like Moyes would like. The form of Leighton Baines at left back has been such that Fabio Capello simply had to take a look at him in England’s last friendly international.
Midfield is probably the area where Moyes’ men are strongest. Phil Neville, once a willing full-back is more often than not an engine room enforcer now (even if he won’t necessary be relishing the prospect of meeting Dickson Etuhu again) and the guile comes from the exceptionally gifted Mikel Arteta, who must just be unlucky to be around at a time when Spain could field two world class midfield quartets, and the boundless energy of the Australian Tim Cahill. Even without Fellaini and Rodwell tomorrow afternoon, Fulham will have to be on their guard. You wouldn’t bet against the hitherto quiet Diniyar Bilyaletdinov sparkling in the summer sunshine either.
Fulham fans will know all about the predatory instincts of Louis Saha, rescued from the end of a Manchester United career that seemed to have gone stale. The French striker has repaid Everton’s faith with thirteen league goals in a season where he has still had his injury problems. He might start on the bench with Yakubu, who also a habit of finding the net against Fulham, preferred in the lone striker’s role.
Roy Hodgson has resisted the temptation to rotate too wildly in recent weeks but he probably won’t want to risk injuries to key personnel ahead of the Europa League semi-final second leg. Bobby Zamora will definitely miss tomorrow’s encounter as Fulham’s physios try to get the striker right for the visit of Hamburg, but other changes are in offing as well. John Pantsil is pushing for a place in the starting line-up but with Chris Baird suspended for Thursday, the Northern Irish utility man might just keep his place at right back.
Hodgson’s preferred Paul Konchesky to the on-loan Nicky Shorey at left back since the former returned from injury but with such a big game on the horizon it will be interesting to see if Shorey gets a run out. His lack of football in recent weeks might rob Fulham of the chance of signing such quality cover for Konchesky on a permanent basis in the summer. Chris Smalling could deputise for Brede Hangeland at centre back, while any number of alterations might be made to the midfield. Jonathan Greening or Bjorn Helge Riise could replace Simon Davies and Clint Dempsey might be handed the opportunity to get some more match sharpness behind either David Elm or Stefano Okaka.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Shorey, Hughes, Smalling; Etuhu, Murphy, Riise, Duff; Dempsey; Okaka. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Stoor, Dikgacoi, Gera, Nevland, Elm.