After what seems like an age, Fulham will return to Premier League action tomorrow with a tricky home tie against Wolves. Mick McCarthy’s side took four points off the Whites last season, with a determined away draw just as impressive as their 2-1 early-season success at Molinuex, and their strong start to this campaign will give a sell-out away crowd plenty of confidence ahead of their trip down to London.
Mark Hughes is still searching for his first league win in charge of Fulham and he’ll certainly be hoping for a little less frenzied defending that we witnessed at Bloomfield Road in that action-packed 2-2 draw last time out. It will be intriguing to see whether John Pantsil, whose mad five minutes sparked a Tangerine revival down by the seaside, is retained at right-back and if new signing Carlos Salcido makes his debut on the opposite side of the back four, especially now that regular left-back Paul Konchesky has been reunited with Roy Hodgson at Liverpool. There is definitely a greater sense of adventure about Fulham under Hughes, but the obvious drawback is that the side doesn’t look quite as secure at the back.
Mark Schwarzer’s return from a back injury might add some experience to the defence even if the Australian was apparently keen to swap west London for Arsenal before the transfer window slammed shut. Schwarzer will need to perform well if he’s to reclaim the number one shirt from David Stockdale on a permanent basis. At the start of the campaign that sentence might have seemed absurd but the 24-year-old’s assured performances made that the ankle injury which ruled him out of England duty last week was horribly unfortunate.
Hughes might have a bit of a selection headache at the other end of the field too. Bobby Zamora may have put pen to paper on a new four-year contract today but depending on which paper you read, he could either be doubtful or definitely out of tomorrow’s fixture. Zamora’s absence might offer Moussa Dembele, who has enjoyed something of a whirlwind start to life in English football, an opportunity to impress in a more conventional centre forward’s role – because the cupboard’s pretty bare otherwise for Hughes, who didn’t sign an out-and-out striker during the transfer window. Alternatively, Clint Dempsey could reprise his role as a makeshift striker or play just behind Dembele. Zoltan Gera – an effective second striker during last season when he was the perfect foil for a revitalised Zamora – will also be hoping to earn a start.
Fulham’s home record against Wolves isn’t exactly anything to get excited about. The Whites have won just two of their last twelve league meetings at the Cottage and they’ve got plenty of reasons to worry about the extension of that sequence this weekend. Tipped as cannon fodder on their return to the top flight a year ago, Wolves surpised plenty of the pundits by staying well clear of the relegation dogfight and the underappreciated McCarthy has built a side with subtlety as well as good old fashioned grit. The former Republic of Ireland manager has made some astute signings in the transfer market and their tenacity in the middle of the park should mean that Danny Murphy, distinctly under-par so far this season, and Dickson Etuhu are primed for battle.
Home fans should also be aware the potency of Wolves’ attacking partnership. Switching from a 4-5-1 formation to a more conventional 4-4-2 is a demonstration of just how comfortable they now feel in the Premier League and the combination of Kevin Doyle’s aerial power and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake’s finishing will worry plenty of top flight defenders between now and May. Doyle is more than just a beanpole striker in truth – his tireless running and clever footballing brian make him an automatic pick for the Republic at the moment – while Ebanks-Blake has scored goals at every level, including three this season – the last of which secured a deserved point at Goodison Park last time out.
It will be far from straightforward for Fulham tomorrow.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Salcido, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera; Dembele. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Baird, Riise, Greening, Dempsey, Elm.