The anger that most 0f us felt after the offside flag that wasn’t against Tottenham last weekend might just have subsided by now, but the news that Mike Dean has been stood down for this round of Premier League fixtures would have brought a rueful smile to the face of anyone of a Fulham persuasion. Another set of untimely injuries mean that Mark Hughes’ attempt to bounce back from his first league setback at the Hawthorns will be far from straightforward, especially as West Brom are probably the league’s surprise side after eight games.
Roberto Di Matteo, who roomed with Hughes when the pair played together at Chelsea, has taken the Baggies more than a stage further than his predecessor Tony Mowbray. Mowbray’s sides admirably stuck to a pleasing passing mantra but a soft centre and a lack of firepower left them powerless to fight an almost inevitable drift back to the Championship. Di Matteo, with just a season in charge of MK Dons behind him before he took charge of Albion, steered the Baggies to promnotion behind Newcastle last season and their upward climb has continued on their return to the top flight. It seems as though West Brom’s days as a yo-yo club could be behind them, with a sterdy defence and some delightful approach play now complimented by real potency up front. They’ve underlined that improvement with two excellent results in recent weeks – a stunning win at the Emirates – and a point at Old Trafford, which was even more creditable after they came back from 2-0 down.
Hughes will be hoping that the hosts’ top scorer Peter Odemwingie, who has made a blistering start to life in England after signing from Lokomotiv Moscow in August, fails a fitness test. The Nigerian international forward has yet to shake off a knee injury and his absence, having already notched three league goals, would be a blow for Di Matteo. It wouldn’t be terminal for West Brom, however. Jerome Thomas, once a hot property as a youngster at Arsenal, is back in contention for a starting place on the wing, whilst Scottish pair Graham Dorrans and James Morrison have been outstanding in midfield for the Baggies this term. Who would bet against Nicky Shorey and Giles Barnes, who both spent loan spells at Craven Cottage under Roy Hodgson, playing starring roles against Fulham this afternoon either?
Coming away with three points from the Hawthorns this afternoon would mean Fulham putting a dent in two records. West Brom have been formidable on their own patch so far this season – they are unbeaten in five games across all competitions. The elephant in the room, of course, is Fulham’s dire away record. The Whites might have shown some improvement in this regard under Hughes, with battling draws at Bolton, Blackpool, Blackburn and West Ham already this term, but the winless run still stretches back s0me 22 games to Portsmouth last August. To end that sorry streak with an entire midfield missing and other key players unavailable, would almost be a minor miracle.
Already without Dickson Etuhu for another fortnight – and how the power of the Nigerian was missed against Spurs last Saturday – Hughes was left counting the cost of that defeat after skipper Danny Murphy limped off with a groin strain midway through the second half. With Damien Duff struggling to recapture both form and full fitness and Simon Davies succumbing to an ankle injury, the options are limited for this afternoon’s encounter. Jonathan Greening will return to his old stomping ground probably partnered by Chris Baird in central midfield and, if reports of Stephen Kelly’s calf injury are accurate, then John Pantsil will most likely be summoned from the substitutes bench to take another opportunity at right back.
The injuries might just give Zoltan Gera an opportunity to show Hughes what he can do. The Hungarian has been somewhat out of favour with the new manager, despite starting the season as the preferred foil for Bobby Zamora. Gera’s ability is unquestionable and he’ll certainly be up for proving his worth to his current employers against his old club this afternoon. Going from player of the year, with all those unforgettable European exploits, to warming the bench must be a bewildering experience – and it’s certainly baffled plenty of us in the stands. Gera’s far better as a starter than an impact player and hopefully he’ll get the chance to link up with Moussa Dembele again this afternoon, even if the Belgian is still feeling his way back from injury.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Salcido, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Greening, Riise, Dempsey; Gera; Dembele. Subs: Stockdale, Halliche, Briggs, Dikgacoi, Kamara, A. Johnson, E. Johnson.