Today’s trip to Molineux should tell us plenty about Martin Jol’s Fulham side. Jol is the latest Fulham manager to try and solve the problem of Fulham’s baffling away form and his first test illustrates the nature of the problem. While the Whites picked up a point in the corresponding fixture last year, they haven’t won at Wolves for 26 years. You have to go take to April 1985, when a Tony Sealy hat-trick and Ray Houghton’s last goal for the club clinched a 4-0 win in the old Division Two.
Much of the build-up to today’s game has centred around the comments made by Danny Murphy about Wolves being one of the Premier League sides that were ‘too pumped up’ to play football. Mick McCarthy revealed this week that the Fulham captain had apologised prior to last season’s meeting between the sides and attempted to draw a line under the issue, but the former Liverpool midfielder will likely still get a hot reception from the home fans this afternoon. While Murphy’s assertions might have been understandable in the light of Bobby Zamora’s broken leg, it was always too simplistic to dismiss Wolves as mere battlers.
There is more finesse to their play than Stoke, another side who incurred Murphy’s wrath, for example. Stephen Hunt, whose late goal against Blackburn kept Wolves up on the final day last year, and Matt Jarvis are probably two of the most-underrated wide players in the top flight. Jarvis, whose form seemed to dip after a surprise England call-up last season, looks to have returned to his confident best if last week’s showing at Blackburn is anything to go by. McCarthy looks set to capitalise on Wolves’ strength in wide positions by being more adventurous this year, playing Kevin Doyle and Steven Fletcher up front in a 4-4-2.
McCarthy has gone about his transfer business quietly but effectively this season. Jamie O’Hara joined on a permanent basis from Tottenham after an impressive loan spell, but the capture of Roger Johnson from relegated Midlands’ rivals Birmingham addressed some concerns about the porous nature of the Wolves defence. The former Cardiff City centre back was outstanding even as the Blues slipped out of the top flight and McCarthy has underlined his importance by making Johnson captain of his side for the new season. Wolves began well with a thoroughly deserved opening day win at Ewood Park and will be confident of earning their first back-to-back wins in a league campaign since 1998.
Jol has professed himself innocent of the furore surrounding Murphy’s comments but will know what to expect at Molineux this afternoon. Wolves are well organised and their home record last season was outstanding. Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City were all beaten last term as McCarthy’s men recorded eight home wins – one of the key statistics as they saw off the threat of relegation. While McCarthy will probably pick the same side that got off to such a great start last week, Jol has a few questions to answer in his own team selection.
Does he persist with playing Aaron Hughes at right back or drop Philippe Senderos to accommodate a more natural full-back? Should Dickson Etuhu return to the heart of the midfield to add bite in order to hold onto much-needed possession? Did Pajtim Kasami do enough against Dnipro to earn a first Premier League start? My suspicion is that Senderos will keep his place in the back four, pushing Hughes over to right back, even if Chris Baird must be mystified at what he has done wrong. Etuhu should be sufficiently chastened by his demotion in midweek to return with gusto alongside Danny Murphy, who should shake off a groin problem to play, and Andy Johnson – who scored the equaliser as a substitute here last year – will partner Bobby Zamora up front.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Briggs, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Zamora, Johnson. Subs: Somogyi, Senderos, Briggs, Gecov, Kasami, Dembele.