Alan Pardew seems to making a habit of defying the doomsday predictions at the moment. Working under Mike Ashley can’t be easy, especially when he seems intent on ripping the heart out of your side. Joey Barton’s move to QPR meant the troubled midfielder – or ‘loveable rogue’ if you agree with Neil Warnock – joined Jose Enrique and Kevin Nolan in leaving Tyneside for pastures new early in the season. But Pardew seems unruffled by the all fuss. Given the boardroom shenanigans and uncertainty, Pardew’s side have made a fine start to the season. The draw with Arsenal, which saw the media focus more on the Gunners’ shortcomings than an impressive display by the Magpies, was followed by a victory at Sunderland and Newcastle will head into tomorrow’s fixture confident of picking up another three points.
Pardew also seems to have unearthed a diamond to bolster Newcastle’s midfield. Yohan Cabaye has slotted seamlessly into the Magpies side and will certainly pose a real threat to Fulham’s hopes of kickstarting their season on Sunday. Not only is he a tireless worker, but the Frenchman is technically gifted, with a terrific first touch and an eye for a pass. He’s also not averse to making a tackle and already looks to have formed a strong central midfield partnership with Cheick Tiote, who had such a superb first season in English football last year. The talented Dan Gosling may well play at the point of Pardew’s midfield diamond, while Gabriel Obertan and Jonas Gutierrez should start out wide supplying the ammunition for Newcastle’s strikers. Pardew has a decision to make up front – if he sticks with the 4-2-3-1 formation he’ll have to choice between Demba Ba, Shola Ameobi and Leon Best. Ameobi’s younger brother, Sammy, who scored the winner in a pulsating League Cup tie at Glanford Park on Thursday might get another chance to shine too.
By contrast, Fulham’s start to the new campaign can only be described as jittery. They flattered to deceive on the opening day against Aston Villa, even if Shay Given produced a few fine saves to deny Bobby Zamora. Without the talismanic front man, Martin Jol’s side struggled to make any sort of impression on Wolves, slipping to a poor defeat at Molineux. They were few positives signs from a patchy performance in Dnipro on Thursday, either, and the Whites will struggle to continue their – comparatively – excellent record at St. James’ Park should Zamora not be fit.
Jol would obviously contest Pardew’s interesting assertion that Newcastle had the tougher midweek fixture, but he has been moved to admit that Fulham need a result tomorrow. In urging his players to produce more going forward, Jol recognises that his side haven’t exactly fulfilled his pre-season pledge to play flowing football, but lack of goals has been a problem Fulham sides have been wrestling with for some time now. The far more worrying concern is at the other end of the pitch. Gone is the defensive assurance that characterised Fulham’s fine past three seasons, replaced with a nervousness that might have been caused by the breaking up of the Hangeland-Hughes partnership at the heart of the defence. Philippe Senderos has yet to put a foot wrong in his brief Fulham career, but the defence looks a lot more comfortable with Chris Baird at right back.
Injuries have depleted an already small squad, especially with the number of players who have left the Cottage over the summer. Such is the lack of depth that Jol was forced to field his strongest side to protect the 3-0 aggregate lead in Ukraine on Thursday. Given the disjointed display that followed, it was a good thing he did – because without the composure of the likes of Aaron Hughes, Fulham wouldn’t have the group stages of the competition to look forward to. With John Arne Riise likely to miss out, Matthew Briggs will probably get an opportunity to build on his strong start to the campaign at left back, whilst the likes of Moussa Dembele and Andy Johnson will need to compensate for the loss of Zamora far better than they managed on Thursday.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, Briggs, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Dempsey, Duff; Dembele, Johnson. Subs: Etheridge, Kelly, Senderos, Gecov, Sidwell, Frei, Kasami.