Tonight’s second leg at Craven Cottage should be intriguing. Crusaders provided Fulham with a much sterner test than some expected last week in Belfast and, but for some fortunate breaks in the last quarter, the Whites could have been facing a far from straightforward task tonight.
Martin Jol will continue his build up to the new league campaign by picking a relatively strong side this evening. He seems confident that Fulham will score plenty of goals, but will hope for a more convincing performance in the second leg. With Carlos Salcido seemingly edging closer towards the exit door, John Arne Riise will be keen to impress on his competitive debut for the club. The Norwegian played an hour of the pre-season defeat at Stevenage last weekend and has been passed fit to start this evening. Omitting Matthew Briggs, who marked a strong first-leg performance with a brilliant opening goal, is very harsh on the youngster, however.
Midfield provides Jol with a few selection headaches. Kerim Frei looked full of running at Seaview and has impressed during his pre-season outings with the reserves. In the continuing absence of Clint Dempsey – currently being rested after his busy summer with the American national side – the 17 year-old could be line to reprise his exploits down the left flank. Plenty of comparisons have been made between Frei and Steed Malbranque and you can certainly see the likeness: both are nippy, confident midfielders who enjoy running with the ball. A better comparison, however, would link Frei with Duff, who is likely to line up on the opposite flank. Media reports have suggested that Stephen Kelly, perhaps rivalling Chris Baird as the new utility man, could start in midfield, although Bjorn Helge Riise would hope to join his brother in the starting line-up.
Whether we’ll see anything of new signing Marcel Gecov remains to be seen. This is the one signing so far that points to Jol’s preference for younger, hungry players. Perhaps the symbolism of the young Czech midfielder signing shortly after the departure of Jonathan Greening to Nottingham Forest indicates where we are going. As Rich has pointed out, Hodgson had a prevalence for older, experienced, dependable players. I think Greening will be a loss, he certainly demonstrated terrific crossing ability out wide, but probably couldn’t be guaranteed the level of first-team football he wanted at this stage in his career. Gecov will certainly give Dickson Etuhu a run for his money in central midfield.
Bobby Zamora notched his first goal of the new campaign in Belfast last week. Zamora’s look a little rusty in his run-outs so far and it was good to see his instinctive header find the net at a crucial time in the first leg. In the absence of the injured Moussa Dembele, it seems as if Zamora and Johnson is the preferred partnership. Johnson’s movement caused problems for Crusaders in the first game, but it’s also interesting to note that Jol seems to have rowed back from his earlier statements regarding our striking options. With Dalla Valle and Trotta soon to be heading out on loan to gain experience, Jol now accepts that the club will need a new centre forward. Both AJ and Zamora will see tonight as a golden opportunity to demonstrate their sharpness.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Frei; Zamora, Johnson. Subs: Etheridge, Kelly, Senderos, Sidwell, Donegan, B.H. Riise, Dalla Valle.