Whisper it quietly, but Fulham fans have every reason to be cautiously content after a couple of weeks of the new season. There’s been no sign of meltdown post-Roy Hodgson as a few of the pundits were suggesting. Mark Hughes has added a bit of steel to the side, as shown in the spirited fightback against Manchester United on Sunday, as well as a spirit of adventure, best illustrated by the glee with which the Whites stuffed six past Port Vale in the League Cup during the week. Early days these may be, but the signs are promising.
There’s more than a slight suggestion that Hughes may in due course move beyond the rather staid away performances that have undermined Fulham’s excellent home record ever since they returned to the top flight back in 2001. Whatever else Hodgson might have achieved during his couple of years by the Thames, he couldn’t shake Fulham’s reputation as the league’s most generous visitors. That wretched away record makes us the perfect visitors to Bloomfield Road for Blackpool’s first game back in the big time. Games like Saturday’s are the ones Ian Holloway must have pinpointed as the ones his charges must win if they are to make a real fist of their quest for survival.
Hughes has hinted in the last of couple of weeks that he’d like Fulham to improve on their attacking play and there’s been a move away from the rather formulaic approach of the past. The arrival of Moussa Dembele, who combines some real speed with an eye for goal and an ability to pick out his colleagues, already promises a less predictable threat going forward even if the Belgian has played only an hour of competitive football since signing from AZ Alkmaar. Shoehorning all of Fulham’s creative talent into an eleven-a-side line-up might be Hughes’ toughest test, although they might need more dogged determination than flair tomorrow afternoon.
Blackpool shouldn’t be sniffed at either. They might have shipped a few goals at the Emirates last weekend but they are far from the first side to suffer at the feet of some scintilating Arsenal approach play. Holloway, who has long been one of the game’s more compelling characters, is a shrewd coach, something often masked by those brilliant one-liners. He’s ambitious enough to countenance playing the same ambitious 4-3-3 that took the Seasiders out of the Championship playing great football and it’s not the easiest formation to counter. Marlon Harewood, who still has something of a point to prove at the highest level, started well at Wigan on the opening day and both Brett Ormerod and Gary Taylor-Fletcher have worried a host of centre-backs down the years.
Bloomfield Road was something of a fortress for Blackpool last season and Holloway’s side were unbeaten in their last eight games as they charged towards the top flight. The home fans will be desperate to roar their side on to all three points and Hughes’ selection will be interesting. David Stockdale will continue to keep goal, but will Matthew Briggs be afforded an opportunity to build on his impressive showing against Port Vale? If the usual midfield four picks itself, who will provide the support to Bobby Zamora? Zoltan Gera was last year’s star but was largely anonymous up at Bolton, whilst Clint Dempsey didn’t make the most of his opportunity when preferred to the Hungarian against United. Has Dembele done enough to justify a first league start?
The bigger question is whether Fulham have matured enough to play the role of party pooper. Two years ago, they started brightly on the opening day but allowed newly-promoted Hull to pilfer three precious points. Tomorrow afternoon might tell us more than any of the three previous fixtures about where the Whites are heading this season – a hard-fought victory would be a pleasing break with tradition.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Stockdale; Pantsil, Briggs, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Dembele; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Baird, Greening, Gera, Dempsey, Elm.