As I type this, Fulham sit bottom of the Premier League table. It’s far from the start that Martin Jol would have envisaged to his Craven Cottage coaching career. Of course, the usual caveats apply: the Whites have a game in a hand on most of those above them, we’ve played only four games and there are still 102 points to play for. But Fulham’s frustrating start to the 2011/12 campaign is definitely worrying. The Whites have struggled for penetration and goals – plenty of my fellow supporters at the back of the Hammersmith End were wondering whether you could draw parallels with the start of that miserable season under Lawrie Sanchez.
Given that Fulham have mustered just two league goals and two points so far, it’s a little difficult to see where the next win’s coming from. Especially when the next visitors to the Cottage are Manchester City, who have been sweeping all-comers before them in an awesome start to the new campaign. Fulham have looked leggy and nervous in their early outings – whether this has anything to do to another early start caused by the Europa League campaign is anyone’s guess, although tiredness in September would be a strange concept – in total contrast to Roberto Mancini’s City. The way in which tomorrow’s opponents brushed aside the challenges of Tottenham and Wigan in recent weeks, with an avalanche of goals and eye-catching football, is far from a comforting thought.
Danny Murphy did his best to strike a defiant note after Thursday’s frustrating draw with FC Twente, but the opening Europa League group game would have posed more questions for Jol. Fulham failed to add to an early lead that was presented to them by a dreadful defensive error and their attacking threat actually decreased after the introduction of Bobby Zamora, who has so far failed to hit the heights of his last two campaigns, when he played his way in Fabio Capello’s thoughts. Moussa Dembele dribbled up plenty of blind alleys and Jol must consider whether to recall Byran Ruiz, who looked bewildered by Premier League life in last week’s draw with Blackburn Rovers.
The absence of Aaron Hughes on Thursday required a change in Fulham’s defence and it’s Jol’s fiddling with a previously miserly back four that has caused most consternation this season. Shunting Aaron Hughes out to right back has accommodated Phillipe Senderos (and in the Swiss centre back’s defence he’s yet to put a foot wrong), but a back line that rivalled the best in the league suddenly looks alarmingly jittery. Chris Baird was jettisoned having made the right back berth his own under Mark Hughes, while John Arne Riise’s chief contribution so far seems to have been testing the durability of opposition walls with midriff high free-kicks. Hughes, who was forced off against Blackburn with an untimely groin injury, could be unavailable tomorrow and Jol has to decide whether – and where – Baird will feature.
Fulham could be without Dickson Etuhu – who has been sidelined with a thigh injury for the past week – although Steve Sidwell’s forward bursts have at least offered a bit of momentum from midfield in the Nigerian’s absence. Jol has pledged to attack City, which could be described as brave or foolhardy depending on your point of view. Memories of City’s 4-1 mauling of Hughes’ side last November after still very fresh. Ruiz might be used from the bench, but if Jol persists with the continental 4-2-3-1 he’ll need it to fire far more effectively than on the last two attempts. Zamora has looked horribly isolated as a lone striker, without the telepathic understanding with Zoltan Gera that punctuated his previous spell as a lone forward, especially as the three advanced midfielders have offered little in the way of width. In theory, such a formation should incorporate all of Fulham’s attacking talent, but in practice it has rendered Damien Duff ineffective down the right and Clint Dempsey, who would usually relish the opportunity to play in the withdrawn forward role he sees as his best position, confused.
The slightest bewilderment will be seized upon by City’s abundance of attacking talent tomorrow afternoon. Mancini will be eyeing top spot even at this early stage in the season as he seeks to send a clear statement that his side are serious title challengers. He will have do without James Milner and Nigel de Jong, but City’s squad provides plenty of cover these days. Mancini even seems to have thrown off the shackles that characterised his first full season in charge, allowing the likes of Sergio Aguero, of whom Fulham fans will need no reminding, and Edin Dzeko, whose quality should never have been in question, to run riot. City’s midfield options now include the mercurial Samir Nasri, who will need to be watched with great care come the first whistle.
Jol’s commitment to attack might be encouraged by the fact that City have failed to record a clean sheet away from home so far and the fact that he has mustered six wins from six matches against the blue half of Manchester. That, though, was before the massive injection of cash and Mancini’s style transformed City from Manchester’s second club into players on the global stage. A seventh victory would ease the worries over Jol’s poor start, but you get a very high price on it.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Riise, Hangeland, Senderos; Sidwell, Murphy; Duff, Ruiz, Dempsey; Zamora. Subs: Etheridge, Gygera, Gecov, Kasami, Dembele, Johnson, Sa.