So it’s nearly here again. Another summer disrupted by a managerial vacuum, another new man comes in and a sense of optimism sweeps through the Fulham faithful. Martin Jol has nodded towards modernity since he replaced Mark Hughes – speaking several times about the importance of regenerating an ageing squad – and he’s acted swiftly in the transfer market. Jol has sanctioned the sale of six players, including a few (and I’m thinking of the likes of John Pantsil, Zoltan Gera and Jonathan Greening) who certainly might have contributed to our European campaign), and brought in some exciting young talent to refresh the squad.
Pajtim Kasami has had barely fifteen minutes on the pitch since he signed from Palermo and Marcel Gecov has arrived off the back of an excellent European Under-21 Championship with the Czech Republic, but the strength of the Fulham side suggests that the pair will have to wait for a sustained run in the side. Perhaps the best indication of Fulham’s relative strength is that, barring the inclusion of John Arne Riise at left back, Jol will mostly likely select the eleven that featured for most of both Roy Hodgson and Mark Hughes’ time at Craven Cottage. Indeed, Moussa Dembele has suggested in the Standard today that stability is one of the major reasons for Fulham’s relative success over the past few seasons.
The gameplan is, by now, familiar. Built around a miserly defence, led by Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes, Fulham play an attractive, determined brand of football. Jol has hinted several times throughout the pre-season that he wants Fulham to play with a bit more width and pace, picking up on the idea that Fulham were frustratingly compact at times under Hodgson. He will likely start with Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff on the flanks tomorrow, with the pair perhaps given a little more license to roam. We haven’t seen too much of Dempsey in a Fulham shirt so far – owing to his international commitments with the United States over the summer – but Duff has returned from the shortest of breaks to play with real intensity and flair. His form picked up during last season and on his day the Republic of Ireland winger remains irrepressible.
Jol may have one or two selection headaches tomorrow. Brede Hangeland’s absence from the Norwegian side that dismantled the Czech Republic in midweek had a few people worried he might miss the big kick-off, especially when he was spotted walking into Motspur Park with a strapping on his knee. Word is that the Norwegian should be fit and Jol should resist the temptation to split the successful partnership with Hughes in favour of bringing in Philippe Senderos, so impressive towards the tail end of the last campaign, at centre back. Hughes has played at right back in some of the Europa League fixtures, but Chris Baird surely deserves a chance to stake his claim there.
In midfield, you’d expect Dickson Etuhu to partner the experienced Danny Murphy, if only because he’s been the regular selection over the past couple of months and offers a little more bite in the tackle. Steve Sidwell, who is probably the more complete footballer, will be desperate to face his former side but may have to bide his time. With the likes of Kasami and Gecov also waiting in the wings, Jol has plenty of midfield options to choose from. The manager’s afforded Moussa Dembele plenty of praise since taking the job, but he has set the Belgian the target of scoring more goals. His quest for a greater goal return may start from the bench tomorrow, however, not only because of his recent return from injury, but also due to the success of Bobby Zamora’s partnership with the hungry Andy Johnson.
And what of Aston Villa? Alex McLeish’s appointment was controversial and he has something of a rebuilding job to do at Villa Park having lost the likes of Brad Friedel, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young over the course of the summer. Villa still have the nucleus of a very good side, however, and the addition of the lively Charles N’Zogbia is undoubtedly a smart one. Darren Bent will lead the line to even greater effect this summer, having had a full pre-season to build on his fine goalscoring return since January, while the quality of Marc Albrighton and Stiliyan Petrov should ensure a stern test for the Whites midfield.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, Hughes, Hangeland, J.A. Riise; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Zamora, Johnson. Subs: Somogyi, Senderos, Briggs, Sidwell, Gecov, Kasami, Dembele.