Who’s afraid of the big, bad Wolves? If you’d have asked the question in mid-July, plenty of people would have smirked and suggested, ‘Not many’. The pundits, who predicted that Wolves would be heading straight back to the Championship, are pretty quiet about Mick McCarthy’s astute management, something which was severly questioned in the wake of the Old Trafford selection furore.
Roy Hodgson’s been pretty open about having other things on his mind ahead of tomorrow’s game. There’s something refreshing about the Fulham manager’s endearing honesty but the laissez-faire attitude to the end of our league campaign could produce very different results: a) tweaked teams could struggle to much the punch of Roy’s regular first eleven or b) the players could be liberated by the lack of pressure and push on towards the top half, as Aaron Hughes was intimating the other day.
Fulham will certainly do well to treat this game against a well-drilled Wolves side as seriously as Thursday’s semi-final first leg in Germany. Hodgson fielded a second string side for the first Europa League group game in Sofia that seems an age ago with the express purpose of delivering a performance at Moulineux. Best laid plains and all that: the Whites were abject and only began to play anything like the football they are capable of in the final twenty minutes.
McCarthy’s men have learned the art of Premier League the hard way with Wolves fans well-accustomed to being one of those sides that never quite cements a place in the top flight. The manager’s had to be flexible with his formations (never mind his selection) and you sense McCarthy, whose straight-talking should endear him to those bored of the pointless platitudes pulled out in front of the media, has grown as well during the campaign. How McCarthy plays it at the Cottage will be interesting: he’ll surely not go for a win for the outset, knowing that a more conservative approach might yield a precious point or even three, should his side be successful on the counter-attack.
Michael Mancienne will probably anchor the Wolves midfield with the hard-working Kevin Doyle, who reportedly spurned Fulham’s advances to join Wolves in the summer, bidding to add to his seven league goals. With skipper Carl Henry still suspended, Dave Edwards, who made his first start in three months against Stoke last weekend, will probably partner the quietly impressive David Jones in the middle of the park.
Hodgson’s selection will obviously have an eye on Thursday, but the intriguing possibility of a return to first-team action for John Pantsil looks the most eye-catching change. The right back, missing since he clattered into the Stamford Bridge advertising hoardings at Christmas, is ineligible for our remaining Europa League fixtures and might just see the close of our domestic campaign as an ideal way to build up match sharpness ahead of the World Cup.
Nicky Shorey could get a game on the other side of the defence with Chris Smalling coming in for Brede Hangeland. Simon Davies, still nursing the rib damaged in our Wolfsburg win, will probably sit this one out, which could allow Bjorn-Helge Riise an opportunity to roam from the right. Etuhu and Murphy is clearly the preferred permutation in the centre, but resting both might be a step too far. The Gera/Zamora axis has served us so well that you might not want to break it up, even if Stefano Okaka probably does deserve a bit more playing time.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Shorey, Hughes, Smalling; Etuhu, Murphy, Riise, Duff; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Baird, Kelly, Dikgacoi, Greening, Okaka, Nevland.