Fulham’s chances of recording another home win against Everton – the Premier League sequence between these two sides favours the home side – tomorrow have receeded badly over the past week or so. Karl Henry and Andy Wilkinson have put paid to any hopes we may have had of seeing Zamora-Dembele partnership blossom as we head into autumn, although the fury over Wilkinson’s utterly atrocious tackle at the end of Fulham’s League Cup defeat at the Britannia Stadium on Tuesday has receeded somewhat with the news that Dembele’s injury isn’t quite as bad as Mark Hughes first feared.
The absence of his two main forwards does leave Hughes with something of a selection dilemma for tomorrow though. Zamora looked fit and raring to go after returning from ankle surgery and Dembele has been something of a revelation since arriving for around £5m in the summer. His ability to take players on and shoot on goal from outside of the box brings something different to the party – previously Fulham’s attacks were a little too functional to prise open the best defences. Zoltan Gera has played the withdrawn striker role very effectively over the last 18 months – he shot to prominence during last season’s European run at a time when Roy Hodgson’s striking options were severely depleted – and he may well be the favourite to fill the Dembele slot against Everton. My money would be on Clint Dempey being asked to play as a lone striker, something he’s done manfully in the past, even if it isn’t his favoured position. David Elm and Eddie Johnson are probably best used off the bench, although the news that the mercurial Diomansy Kamara, fit again after injury, could be included in the matchday squad is exciting.
Movement from midfield might well be the key to prolonging Everton’s miserable start to the season. It has always been a more fluid four than the orthodox formations other sides have played, but Hughes has taken Roy Hodgson’s template on a level. Now the wide players aren’t just expected to tuck in and track back, but widen the pitch and create space and chances for the front players. The liberty given to Simon Davies, for example, can be illustrated in the manner that he galloped forward to score the first equaliser against Manchester United after Damien Duff had broken clear on the halfway line. Under Hodgson, Fulham were all too reluctant to throw players into the penalty area. With the encouragement Hughes has offered Dickson Etuhu, formerly the textbook stopper in front of the back four, to make runs from central midfield, there’s certainly a few more threats for the opposition to quell.
David Moyes has a similar lack of forwards to contend with as he contemplates his side for tomorrow. Like Fulham, Everton have flourished in a rather uncoventional 4-6-0 formation over the past couple of years, with the intelligence of Tim Cahill and the goal-getting prowess of Marouane Fellaini compensating for the lack of a fit leader of the line on ocassions. The fit-again Yakubu could plough a lone furrow up front, but the real danger comes from the Everton engine room. The Toffees probably have one of the strongest midfields outside the top four, with the underrated Leon Osman competing for places alongside the likes of Steven Pienaar and Mikel Arteta. The strength of Spanish football at the moment is illustrated by the fact that Arteta, a supremely gifted footballer, has contemplated switching nationality to play international football.
Everton will be desperate to record their first win of the season and won’t be relishing a return to west London after they tumbled out of the Carling Cup on penalties at Brentford on Tuesday night. Fulham, remarkably consistent under Hughes until the slip-up at Stoke, will need to improve on a jittery defensive performance at Ewood Park last weekend. Everton might not be as physical and route one as Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn were on that ocassion, but Mark Schwarzer looked unusually shaky in coming for high balls. Carlos Salcido had a particularly impressive debut and, if Hangeland and Hughes aren’t distracted by the possible lack of a front man to mark, the Whites should consider themselves able to continue their unbeaten league start.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, Salcido, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Davies, Duff; Gera; Dempsey. Subs: Etheridge, Baird, Halliche, Greening, Kamara, E. Johnson, Elm.