Consistency is something that has eluded Fulham under most of their managers since their return to the top flight. In recent years, the side has proved itself a match for most on their day, but failed to put together the sequence of results that justified Mark Hughes’ insistence he could convert the promise into a top-ten finish. As if to illustrate that point, Fulham have not recorded two straight league wins since last February, even if their European adventure that took all the way to Hamburg last year was as memorable as anything that has gone before.
At the early stage of the season, it was perhaps too early to label last weekend’s home game against Wigan as a ‘must win’ fixture. A comfortable victory, ably provided by two goals from the in-form Clint Dempsey, catapulted Hughes’ side eight places up the table and eased the pressure after a few worrying weeks. The visit of an off-colour and injury-afflicted Aston Villa, still trying to put the methods of new manager Gerard Houllier into practice, provides a perfect opportunity to pick up another three points, especially as Villa are likely to have John Carew, still shaking off his own injury problems, as their only fit striker for this afternoon’s fixture.
Villa’s start to the season was badly disrupted by the surprise departure of Martin O’Neill and then the uncertainty over who would succeed him at Villa Park. Kevin Macdonald’s tenure showed just how much young talent Villa had at their disposal, but Houllier brings the kind of technical and tactical expertise – as well as the experience of high-level European football – that the likeable Macdonald just didn’t have. The former Liverpool manager has seen his new side produce moments of real quality, but Villa have yet to build on the 2-1 defeat of Wolves in Houllier’s first game in September and his post-match irritation over Stephen Ireland’s form last week suggested that the Frenchman had been struggling to reshape the side as he would have liked.
Villa have a great league record against Fulham, but will be without the kind of forward power that would strike fear into a host of Premier League defences. Emile Heskey suffered medial ligament damage in training on Wednesday, leaving the former England international likely to be on the sidelines for the best part of a month as he recovers from surgery. Heskey’s absence will concern Houllier especially as Villa are struggling for goals at the moment. They have only scored nine goals in ten matches this term and are on a 344-minute league goal drought. Gabriel Agbonlahor, who has been out for five weeks with a groin injury, has returned to training but is not fit enough to be considered for selection at Craven Cottage this afternoon.
The slenderness of Villa’s squad means that Carew, himself still troubled by a persistent back complaint, might be forced to play as a lone striker unless 19-year-old Nathan Delfouneso is included or Houllier pushes Ashley Young further forward, as he did in the League Cup last week. The visitors will already be without skipper Stilian Petrov, whose knee problem will keep him out until the new year, whilst Steve Sidwell is still suffering from a flu virus and is considered doubtful. Talented winger Marc Albrighton is available again after a one-match suspension.
By comparison, Hughes’ selection problems are relatively more straightforward. Damien Duff, who has struggled for both fitness and form this season, is back in the squad alongside Dickson Etuhu, who has been out for three weeks with an ankle injury. Hughes will ponder whether to bring the Nigerian international straight back into the starting line-up or stick with Jonathan Greening and Danny Murphy in central midfield after the pair played well together in the 2-0 win over Wigan last Saturday. Duff will have to compete with Zoltan Gera, outstanding last weekend, for a wide midfield berth.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, Salcido, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Davies, Gera; Dempsey, Dembele. Subs: Stockdale, Kelly, Pantsil, Greening, Riise, A. Johnson, Kamara.