Barely a week after returning to pre-season training, Fulham’s players return to European action tonight with a tie against the largely unknown NSI Runavik of the Faroe Islands. Martin Jol has spoken about his plans to treat the early Europa League qualification rounds as friendly matches with a competitive edge but will be wary of any embarrassing slip-ups so early in his tenure at Craven Cottage.
Jol has maintained the line that Fulham are very happy to be part of another European campaign, despite the June start that might threaten to disrupt their season later on. Such warnings went unheeded as Fulham went all the way to the final in that memorable run thirteen months ago and Jol has spoken positively about the prospect of emulating that success.
With a few key players missing, the 12,000 fans who have purchased tickets in advance will get a glimpse of some of the club’s youth prospects tonight. It has been a source of frustration that previous Fulham managers, perhaps stretching back to Chris Coleman, have opted against giving youth their head in competitive games. You can perhaps understand the impulse to play safe, especially as the club’s Premier League status was frequently in jeopardy. The papers have tipped former Liverpool striker Lauri Dalle Valle, who has been training with the first-team this week, and midfielder Alex Frei to make their full debuts this evening.
The chances of Dalle Valle, signed by Mark Hughes on the recommendation of Fulham’s academy director Huw Jennings and chief scout Malcolm Elias, making a first-team breakthrough this year have risen after Jol appeared to rule out strengthening his striking options by signing a new forward in interviews yesterday. The Finnish international has impressed during pre-season and highly thought of at Motspur Park. Loaned out to Bournemouth as cover towards the end of last season, Dalle Valle made an impression before the Cherries’ first-team strikers returned to form and fitness. He deserves an opportunity to show us all what he can do.
Karim Frei has also been predicted to get a run-out tonight. The teenage midfielder has impressed since signing from Grasshopper Zurich last January, quickly progressing through the age-ranked sides and representing the reserves on a couple of occasions. Frei’s an exciting talent, with an eye for a gap and a penchant for dribbling past opponents. It might be a stretch to see him from the start tonight, but he could get a late introduction from the bench. Matthew Briggs should start at left back in the absence of Carlos Salcido and this fixture will be the ideal opportunity for the youngster to build on his handful of first-team starts from last season. He was often thrown in at the deep during the last campaign, but impressed in his first outing against Port Vale, so we should expect a few more barnstorming runs down the left from him. Whether Keanu Marsh-Brown, who enjoyed a successful loan spell with MK Dons last term, gets a chance to impress is a question that will only be answered tonight.
Jol’s side will hope to put some clear distance between themselves and the Faroese part-timers tonight to make the second leg more of a formality and another opportunity for experimentation.
MY FULHAM XI: Stockdale; Kelly, Briggs, Halliche, Senderos; Greening, Murphy, Marsh-Brown, Duff; A. Johnson, Dalla Valle. Subs: Bettinelli, Baird, Smith, Etuhu, Sidwell, Peniket, Zamora.