With the sort of delicious timing only football administrators can muster, the Premier League ruled that West Ham’s risible complaint over Fulham’s team selection at Hull was without foundation. The manner in which Roy Hodgson has juggled his resources at Craven Cottage this season has won praise from many managers – even Gianfranco Zola professed himself happy with the way the Hodgson sent his side out at Hull – and Fulham’s incredible progress to the Europa League final this week should have settled the argument.
The arguments might well also soon be over at the Boleyn Ground. David Gold and David Sullivan are certainly good value for money as football personalities, although it’s difficult to see Zola, a genuine man who could yet turn out to be an excellent coach, lasting beyond the summer. Undermined almost before the new regime had got their feet under the table, the Italian’s managed to steer a troubled Hammers side to safety well before the final day of the season but still it seems as though he’s being kept out of the loop.
Zola protested publicly about the West Ham hierarchy’s decision to brief journalists that all of their squad – bar Scott Parker – would be made available for transfer as well as the tabling of a bid for West Brom’s Graham Dorrans. Both of these decisions seem to have been taken without the consent of a manager who might still be learning his trade but clearly retains the respect of his players. Zola’s point about how the likes of Mark Noble, an underrated promising midfield, and Valon Behrami – just for starters – might react to the news that West Ham would listen to offers for their services is well made. You do get the sense that Messrs. Gold and Sullivan covet media attention rather than quiet efficiency in the boardroom.
The irony is that West Ham certainly won’t be complaining should Hodgson decide to field a second-string side tomorrow afternoon at the Cottage. With the remaining league games now something of a sideshow before the Europa League final against Atletico Madrid on May 12, you shouldn’t expect to see too many first teamers on the field. Bobby Zamora, who didn’t look anywhere near his sharpest on Thursday, faces something of a race against time to be ready for Fulham’s not-so-fanciful finale and he won’t be the only one watching on from the sidelines.
The man who made the short journey across London from the Boleyn Ground a couple of years ago should keep his place. John Pantsil, clearly a character but someone who didn’t nail down a first-team berth at West Ham, looked a little rusty against Hamburg – perhaps understandably having missed a large chunk of the season through injury – but he’ll want to prove a point to his former employers. Paul Konchesky might be keen to carry on at left back but the on-loan Nicky Shorey deserves a run and it will be interesting to see whether Hodgson pairs Smalling, error-prone in recent weeks, and Baird, whose injury-challenge conceded the crucial penalty at Everton last Sunday, together in central defence.
Midfield might see plenty of alterations too. Greening and Dikgacoi could come in for Murphy and Etuhu, whilst Damien Duff could do with a rest. That, or the replacement of Simon Davies – who gamely fought to the end on Thursday despite being clattered after he’d fired home the equaliser against Hamburg – might facilitate a return to the starting line-up for Clint Dempsey, who perked Fulham up when he came on as a substitute the other night. Bjorn-Helge Riise might get a run down the other flank too.
With Zamora missing and Zoltan Gera likely to be rested, Hodgson might decide to go with Erik Nevland and Stefano Okaka in attack tomorrow. The combination worked rather well at Everton and the young Italian might have sealed three points had he not shot disappointing straight at Tim Howard after Nevland had played him in. Okaka’s got the potential to be a very tricky customer in England, while the Norwegian’s know-how should be utilised to the maximum before he returns to Viking in the summer.
West Ham do boast a formidable record at the Cottage. Their unbeaten run at Fulham stretches back to 1974/75, which was incidentally the same season as our previous appearance in a major final against tomorrow’s opponents. Zola’s side certainly have the capacity to extend that run tommorow. Parker will mix steel with style in central midfield and the likes of Noble and Behrami would provide outlets out wide. Ilhan and Carlton Cole have gelled nicely up front and will be a handful for whichever pair of centre backs Hodgson selects.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Shorey, Baird, Smalling; Dikgacoi, Greening, Riise, Dempsey; Okaka, Nevland. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Hughes, Etuhu, Murphy, Gera, Elm.