Fulham return to league action today with a trip to West Bromwich Albion, who currently sit at the foot of the Premier League table. The Baggies have had a stuttering start to the new campaign, although there were impressive in two narrow defeats to Manchester United and Chelsea in their opening games. The press have been busy building this up as a six-pointer and, even if players and managers tell you that they don’t bother looking at the tables at this early stage, both sides will desperate to win their first league game of the season.
It will be an afternoon of reunions at the Hawthorns. Martin Jol spent spent two years at West Brom in the early 1980s, helping the Baggies to the semi-finals of both domestic cup finals in 1981-82. Roy Hodgson will manage a side against Fulham for the first time since leaving Craven Cottage in July 2010, after guiding the Whites to the Europa League final. Unfortunately, injury prevents Zoltan Gera – still highly regarded at Fulham for these crucial European goals – from making his second West Brom debut against his former club. Both managers should receive good receptions from the respective fans, but the sentiment certainly won’t extend to the pitch come 3pm.
Jol insists he’s unruffled by Fulham’s position in the league table, but the statistics are worrying. The last time Fulham didn’t win one of their first five league games they were relegated from the top flight in 1951/52. That year they were beaten in the sixth fixture, although Jol will be hoping that his side are buoyed by their terrific comeback against Manchester City last Sunday and a gutsy performance by the second string at Chelsea in the Carling Cup in midweek. Indeed, the strength of some of the youngsters’ displays at Stamford Bridge presents the Fulham boss with something of a dilemma. Does he return to the side that Hodgson will know so well or throw in a couple of the new boys who were so impressive on Wednesday?
In the continued absence of Aaron Hughes, Philippe Senderos should partner Brede Hangeland in the centre of Fulham’s defence. Senderos has hardly put a foot wrong so far and was at his calm and accomplished best at Stamford Bridge in midweek. John Arne Riise, who sat out the local derby, should return at left back on his birthday, while Jol has a decision to make at right back. Chris Baird, who anchored the midfield superbly against Chelsea, should return to the full-back role that he made his own under Mark Hughes but Stephen Kelly’s good run in the side of late makes it difficult to leave the Irishman out. Then there’s new signing Zdenek Grygera, who looks like a shrewd acquisition after a solid debut against Twente and an even more pleasing evening against Chelsea at centre back.
Skipper Danny Murphy will come back into the midfield after being rested in the League Cup and look to build on his good start to this campaign. His deflected equaliser against Manchester City was his first goal of the season, but Murphy has already laid on more chances for his team-mates – 21 – than any other Premier League player. He’ll likely be joined in central midfield by Steve Sidwell, although the former Aston Villa man will have noted how assured young Marcel Gecov looked on his debut. Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff should return to the starting line-up, but whether Bryan Ruiz will be given another start is an unanswered question. The Costa Rican had a far more effective game at Chelsea than on his debut against Blackburn, but had to battle both fatigue and a groin strain as the game went into extra-time. Kerim Frei’s brilliant performance on Wednesday had the fans salivating but it’s unlikely that the 17 year-old will be included after that energy-sapping 120 minutes.
A much-changed West Brom side were unfortunate to exit the Carling Cup after Phil Neville’s extra-time winner in midweek, with Hodgson pleased by the response of his side to their meek capitulation at Swansea last week. The Baggies have shown signs of still adjusting to the 4-4-2 that Hodgson has employed this season, perhaps because it would be the best way to harness the potency of Peter Odemwingie and new signing Shane Long. If the former Reading man, who has already scored against Manchester United and Chelsea this season, fails to recover from a flu bug, Hodgson may switch to a 4-5-1 system, which Paul Scharner says has been employed in training this week. The Austrian midfielder and Youssouf Mulumbu make for a hard-working midfield partnership, while Fulham will also need to shackle the creativity of captain Chris Brunt and Jerome Thomas, who was rumoured to be a transfer target in the summer. With the likes of James Morrison and Graeme Dorrans also available, Hodgson has plenty of options in midfield.
You have to go back to May 2002 for Fulham’s last win at the Hawthorns, when Steve Marlet’s header settled an FA Cup quarter-final. The Whites haven’t managed a Premier League win there – with their last success coming in their promotion season in an impressive 3-1 win, when a double from Sean Davis was followed by a debut goal from Andrejs Stolcers. What Jol would give for a repeat performance.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Baird, J. A. Riise, Hangeland, Senderos; Sidwell, Murphy; Duff, Dempsey, Dembele; Zamora. Subs: Etheridge, Kelly, Grygera, Gecov, Kasami, Ruiz, Sa.