While Fulham fans plot their journey to Germany and wonder whether the Whites might be able to prolong our extraordinary European adventure, Wigan Athletic come to town on Easter Sunday. When people rather to the league as our bread and better they are trying to state just how important it is to us – as Fulham’s first priority each year to stay in the Premier League – but right now it compares a little unfavourably with the continental caviar.
Fulham looked a little leggy against Manchester City at the Cottage the other week, which was perhaps understandable given the drama of that unforgettable comeback against Juventus a few days earlier, but the level of distraction at Hull last weekend was less tolerable, especially as a few of the players who Roy Hodgson bought in for the trip to the KC Stadium had a point to prove. The Whites will have to be much sharper tomorrow afternoon with Wigan desperate for points to ensure their top-flight survival.
The headlines this week over West Ham’s complaint to the Premier League will meant that there will be plenty of talk about who eventually ends up on Hodgson’s teamsheet. That away goal by Alexander Madlung might mean there is a bit more rotation than there could have been had Fulham managed to avoid the all-too-familiar trap of sitting back on a lead too early. That’s not to say the tie would have been over at 2-0 but Hodgson might have felt able to give a couple of his key peformers a rest.
Given how essential Hangeland and Hughes are to Fulham’s defensive security, there’s a fair chance that Chris Smalling might come in again. The young defender has had to take a fair bit of criticism for some costly lapses of concentration since he finalised a big money money to Manchester United and the clumsy challenge on Jozy Altidore last weekend wasn’t one of his finest moments. The boy’s still learning at this level – which makes Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to part with around £10m for him all the more surprising – but should he step into central defence on Sunday, Fulham will be looking for a bit more composure in his decision making.
Stephen Kelly was left out on Thursday in favour of Simon Davies, who didn’t do a bad job at right back, and the Irish full-back could get a run in that position against Wigan. His omission was somewhat surprising as he had been left out at Hull and the experiment of playing Shorey and Konchesky as full-backs didn’t really work. Kelly might have been punished for an ill-timed challenged at Tottenham in our FA Cup replay but his European performances have been pretty solid.
Perhaps the man who could have most cause to feel a little deflated by his recent spell out of the side is Chris Baird. For me, he continues to offer just that bit more than Dickson Etuhu in central midfield: he’s got a better range of passing, snaps into tackles, is confident enough to go forward and – most importantly – moves the ball more decisively. Even if Etuhu were to preferred there (or should Jonathan Greening or Kagisho Dikgacoi come into the equation), Baird would still have a decent shout of appearing at right back again, where most of his Sanchez-era jitters seem to have evaporated.
We were all rather looking forward to seeing a little more of Stefano Okaka up at Hull, but the Italian loanee’s been limited to substitutes appearances since his debut for Fulham. Whether that’s because Hodgson doesn’t fancy him or just that he needs a little more time to adjust to the English game is a question this correspondent simply can’t answer, but his loan seems a little pointless if he doesn’t get a bit more gametime soon. He’s got the size and pace to be an effective lone frontman and his looked lively enough in his last couple of appearances from the bench, so maybe now’s the time to give him a go.
Don’t be fooled in thinking Wigan will be easy opponents tomorrow afternoon. Roberto Martinez is a promising manager, who has been pragmatic enough to relax a few of his flowing football principles Fulham fans would have first seen in the FA Cup at Swansea last year, and the Latics are still searching for a win or two – as they sit four points above the drop zone having played a game more than Hull. Hugo Rodallega’s popped up with a few crucial goals this season and former Newcastle winger Charles N’Zogbia, so impressive in our previous meeting at the JJB this term, could keep the defence busy. The visitors might be without Gary Caldwell but Fulham will do well to get past the excellent Chris Kirkland, who should return to the Wigan goal, having recovered from a virus.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, Shorey, Hangeland, Smalling; Baird, Greening, Riise, Davies; Dempsey; Okaka. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Hughes, Dikgacoi, Murphy, Gera, Zamora, Nevland.