Trips to Chelsea haven’t been very profitable in recent years. Games in the League Cup even less so. They might even be a muted feel about the build-up to this fixture, especially as both managers have confirmed that their priorities lie elsewhere. Martin Jol will give some of his fringe players a run-out with the Europa League already stretching Fulham’s squad and with half an eye on Saturday’s game at West Brom. Andres Vilas-Boas wants to test some of Chelsea’s young talent and put Sunday’s defeat at Old Trafford behind him.
Vilas-Boas has several precocious talents that may cause Fulham pain this evening. Ryan Bertrand has been highly-rated by those in the game for sometime now, although his opportunities to break into the Chelsea first-team have been limited by the continued excellence of Ashley Cole. Now 22, Betrand, who has been converted into a left-back having started his career as a nippy winger, has enjoyed loan spells with Norwich, Reading and Nottingham Forest in recent seasons. Former Barcelona defensive midfielder Oriol Romeu could feature at the base of a midfield diamond that should also include Josh McEachran, the 18 year-old, who had such an impressive pre-season. Danny Sturridge, who scored nine goals at Bolton on loan last term and got off the mark for this campaign with a cheeky back-heel at Sunderland, could also feature.
Given that Jol is likely to rotate tonight, it will be interesting to see what sort of starting line-up he picks. During yesterday’s pre-match press conference, the Dutchman suggested he was keen on giving Rafik Halliche, who has largely lingered in the background during his year at Craven Cottage, a start. The Algerian impressed at the World Cup – keeping Wayne Rooney quiet in that forgettable group stage draw – but an untimely bug makes him a doubt for tonight. With Didier Drogba expected to start, it might fall to Philippe Senderos and Chris Baird to keep the big man quiet, a task memorably fulfilled by John Pantsil before he went off injured a couple of years ago.
The full-back positions will probably offer an insight into Jol’s thinking too. Zdenek Grygera had a solid debut against FC Twente and the Czech defender certainly won’t be overawed by the occasion at Stamford Bridge if he is picked ahead of Stephen Kelly, who impressed as a substitute against Blackburn ten days ago. On the other flank, Matthew Briggs should get another chance to continue his impressive season with John Arne Riise likely to be rested for Saturday. Briggs showed composure and talent in equal measure during Fulham’s early European fixtures and his development has been recognised by a recent appearance for the England under-21s. He looked a little nervy at times during the league fixture at the Bridge last year so tonight should be a good indicator of just how far he’s progressed.
Fulham fans might finally get more than a fleeting glimpse of Marcel Gecov this evening. The red-headed midfielder has been a fixture on the bench since signing from Slovan Liberec in the summer and has played just 45 minutes of reserve-team football. He has been highlighted by Jol as a potential successor to Danny Murphy, who isn’t expected to be risked this evening, but has had to bide his time for a first-team opportunity. Gecov could line-up alongside either Steve Sidwell, who would keen to prove a point against one or his former clubs or Dickson Etuhu, who has reportedly recovered from his thigh injury.
Pajtim Kasami made a real impact off the bench against Manchester City on Sunday, buzzing around on the flanks and sending over some dangerous deliveries. The Swiss midfielder has offered tantalising flashes of the quality that persuaded Jol to part with nearly £3.5m to prize him away from Palermo, even if he has struggled with the physicality of the Premier League at times. He should be offered another chance to impress this evening. Kerim Frei enjoyed an eye-catching debut in Belfast but has had to make do with reserve team outings since. The tricky winger scored a terrific goal against Manchester United’s second string the other wing and it would be nice to see him have some game time this evening.
Jol’s options up front are limited. Bobby Zamora is likely to rest his troublesome ankle as Premier League points are the priority given Fulham’s sluggish start to the season. Orlando Sa, who had a trial at Chelsea two years ago, could make his Fulham debut up front, while rather Bryan Ruiz will be deployed in support of him is in the intriguing question of the afternoon. Ruiz was hauled off after just 45 minutes of his debut against Blackburn, with Jol admitting afterwards that it was a mistake to introduce his £10.6m new signing so quickly after his arrival. The Costa Rican had a couple of minutes at the end of the thrilling draw with Manchester City on Sunday and, given that he’s unlikely to be involved from the start against the Baggies, you could certainly see him given a start this evening. It would be one of hell of a time to start paying back that hefty transfer fee.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Grygera, Briggs, Baird, Senderos; Etuhu, Gecov; Frei, Kasami, Ruiz, Sa. Subs: Etheridge, Kelly, Halliche, Sidwell, Duff, Dembele, Zamora.