After a disappointing start against Aston Villa on Saturday, there will be no room for manoeuvre against a dangerous Dnipro side this evening. Failure to beat the Ukrainians would place Fulham’s hopes of reaching the group stages of the Europa League in real jeopardy, whilst even a narrow win might cause a few hearts to flutter ahead of the second leg next week.
Martin Jol has left his side under no illusions as to his expectations. The manager’s preview over on the Offal talks about the need for goals. Fulham have been free-scoring in their European campaign so far, but this is their sternest test to date. The home fans will need no warning of the strength of Ukrainian football after Shakhtar passed Fulham off the park for an hour in a spellbinding first leg a couple of years ago and Juande Ramos’ side are certainly confident of going one better than their domestic rivals.
Dnipro certainly have a few players capable of stretching the Fulham defence. Oleksiy Antonov, a 25 year-old close-season signing from FC Illichivets Mariupol, has already hit the ground running, scoring four goals in a blistering start to his Dnipro career. Ramos can also rely on the mercurial talents of Brazilian Matheus, who has previously starred for Braga in Europe, and will certainly occupy Fulham’s defence this evening. Playing from slightly deeper, Ruslan Rotan will attempt to dictate the tempo of Dnipro’s attacks. He has played almost 200 games for the club and is a regular with the Ukrainian national side. Nikola Kalinic, until recently of Blackburn, scored on his debut, whilst Fulham fans might be cheered by the prospect of Jan Lastuvka in goal. That might be harsh on the Czech keeper who struggled in a poor Fulham side back in 2007/08 and has rebuilt his career in the Ukraine.
Jol has a few selection dilemmas to solve this evening. We will get an indication of just how highly he regards the competition as a tough trip to Wolves follows on Sunday. Jol has hinted that he will look to shake things up a little, suggesting that the likes of Stephen Kelly and Matthew Briggs may play a part. Kelly hasn’t featured for Fulham under the new manager and while the Republic of Ireland full-back did very well during our last European run, I’d fear that his inclusion at the expense of Chris Baird might signal the curtain coming down on the latter’s Fulham career.
Plenty of Fulham fans will be wondering whether Jol might wish to freshen up the midfield. Dickson Etuhu, after a wretched display on Saturday, might be most vulnerable if Jol feels he could do without the Nigerian’s steel against continental opponents. Steve Sidwell would be the most natural replacement, but both Pajtim Kasami and Marcel Gecov will also be hoping for a run-out. Gecov’s yet to see any first-team action since signing for the club, whilst Kasami has been limited to tantalising cameos against RNK Split. If Jol wishes to rest key players prior to that trip to Wolves – where you would think Etuhu’s physicality is a must – then the new arrivals could be in direct competition for a starting spot.
Up front, you would expect Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson to start once again. On another day – and perhaps facing another goalkeeper – Zamora could have had a hat-trick on the opening day. His movement remains a real problem for even the most well-organised defences, even if there is still a question mark over his fitness after fracturing a bone in his hand. Johnson has been in excellent poaching form in the early rounds of the Europa League and his partnership with Zamora seems revived. With Moussa Dembele approaching match fitness, the competition for places should act as a spur for the pint-sized forward.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Sidwell, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Zamora, Johnson. Subs: Somogyi, Kelly, Senderos, Briggs, Gecov, Kasami, Dembele.