The end-of-season trek to the Emirates this afternoon is little more than a footnote in Fulham’s ever-extending season. The life rather went out of the league campaign by the end of Wednesday’s disappointing defeat to Stoke and Roy Hodgson must be sorely tempted to bench the first-team regulars for the final league fixture at Arsenal. The Fulham manager is already sailing fairly close to the wind with Bobby Zamora and Damien Duff, substituted at half-time against Stoke, serious fitness doubts for the eagerly-anticipated European final with Atletico Madrid.
If Hodgson held any feint hope of creeping into the top ten, it might have been extinguished by Matthew Etherington’s clinical late strike in midweek. Stoke’s strong display ensured they managed to leapfrog Fulham in the table and the Whites’ chances of ending the season in the top half depend on an unlikely sequence of events that includes Fulham winning at Arsenal. Since a Fulham win in the red half of north London is unheard of, I think Roy might be justifying in giving some of the fringe players a run.
Of course, the true success of this campaign can’t be measured by our placing in the league table. Hodgson’s heroics after such an exhilirating Great Escape were rewarded with a European odyssey that stretched all the way from Vilnius to Hamburg with several stops across the continent inbetween. Roma, Shakhtar Donetsk Juventus, Hamburg and not even a cloud of volcanic ash could stall Hodgson’s progress to the final. That he did it with the junior members of a still small-scale squad playing a full part makes the achievement all the more incredible.
Playing a second string side against Arsenal is always dangerous even if Arsene Wenger’s team selections might have raised a few eyebrows themselves lately. Hodgson has been cleared by the Premier League of any wrongdoing after making drastic changes up at Hull earlier in the season so might feel free to tinker with his starting line-up once again. The calf injury Duff sustained after a brutal first-half tackle against Stoke might act as a reminder of the need to preserve Fulham’s players for that date with Atletico.
Whoever Wenger picks, Arsenal will stay true to the principles that have made them England’s best footballing side since the professor took up residence at Highbury. It’s highly unlikely that Fulham will see as much of the ball as we did on our last trip – a 0-0 draw last year when the Whites matched their hosts pass for pass – but Roy won’t want standards to slip regardless of how he shuffles his pack.
There might be recalls for Chris Baird and Nicky Shorey whilst Chris Smalling is almost certain to return to the heart of the defence. I can’t see Roy risking Danny Murphy, who might be reaching veteran’s status in terms of the Premier League, but remains so key to Fulham’s chances of success and Jonathan Greening might get a go in his place. Bjorn Helge Riise could roam from the right in place of Duff and I’d like to see Nevland and Okaka get a chance to resume what looked like a promising partnership against West Ham.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, Shorey, Hughes, Smalling; Dikgacoi, Greening, Riise, Davies; Okaka, Nevland. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Stoor, Etuhu, Murphy, Gera, Elm.