West Ham might sit second bottom in the table, but make no mistake about it this will be far from a cakewalk for Fulham. Anyone heading down to the Boleyn Ground in a serene state of confidence might be advised to check into a doctor’s surgery or call NHS Direct. Setting aside Fulham’s ridiculously wretched away record, the Hammers have rediscovered a sense of belief over the past couple of weeks that suggests that have the character to pull away from the wrong end of the table after a poor start to the season.
There can be no doubting the quality at the disposal of Avram Grant, who like a succession of West Ham managers before him has had to temper expectations, largely because he’s been unable to pick a settled side from one week to the next. That problem can be neatly summed up in two words: Kieron Dyer. When Dyer burst onto the scene with Ipswicvh and then Newcastle, many revelled at the discovery of a hungry, exciting, English-born teenage midfielder. Not only has Dyer failed to make the most of his outrageous ability, but injuries have wrecked his chances of even enjoying an international career. Managers have become accustomed to having to leave him out of their thoughts and Grant could be without him again this weekend. Dyer’s latest comeback has been interrupted by a stomach complaint.
There is a sense of optimism eminating from Upton Park at the moment that belies West Ham’s lowly league postion. The Hammers showed plenty of fight in a gritty 1-1 draw at Stoke that Grant missed due to Yom Kippur, but they brushed aside Sunderland in the Carling Cup on his return and recorded a priceless derby win over Tottenham last week to lift themselves off the foot of the table. That success over Spurs was their first in four years and Grant will be hoping it will provide the perfect springboard for another three points against Fulham tomorrow afternoon.
The siege mentality at Upton Park was best illustrated by a defiant Rob Green at the final whistle last weekend. After the barbs he’s taken from opposition fans and the football commentariat over past five months or so, few could blame him for pointing a finger in the direction of the press box. Green won’t be particularly pleased to be crossing paths with Clint Dempsey on Saturday, though – and you can be sure the American, likely to be deployed in a makeshift striking role once again, won’t need a second invitation to try the sort of speculative shot that so embarassed the England goalkeeper in South Africa.
Matthew Upson, who himself has been a little off-colour since a disappointing summer with England, reckoned that the win over Tottenham was the best his side had acquitted themselves in more than two seasons. Upson could have a host of new partners alongside him in front of Green as West Ham have doubts abvout the fitness of Herita Illunga, New Zealand international Winston Reid and American Jonathan Spector. They’ll hope to profit from a fairly strong home record against Fulham, who have recorded just one league win at Upton Park since their return to the top flight, although they were close to doubling that total last season.
Mark Hughes will be hoping to preserve his side’s uinbeaten record, which is now the last in the Premier League. He will have to shuffle his pack once again as Stephen Kelly tore a calf muscle in the goalless draw with Everton last Saturday. Chris Baird is expected to replace the Republic of Ireland international at right-back as former West Ham defender John Pantsil has endured a torrid start to this campaign after his World Cup exploits. Andy Johnson came through a behind-closed-doors reserve friendly with Chelsea in the week, but is not expected to make the trip across the capital. In the absence of the injured Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele, Dempsey is likely to be supported by Zoltan Gera in attack. The Fulham bench will once again be strengthened by the inclusion of Diomansy Kamara, who made a long-awaited return from injury last weekend.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Salcido, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera; Dempsey. Subs: Stockdale, Halliche, Pantsil, Greening, Riise, Kamara, E. Johnson.