Trips to Arsenal aren’t exactly profitable for Fulham fans. Sure, you get the odd backs-to-the-wall point here and here there (compare and contrast the van der Sar vs Arsenal effort of the Coleman era with the more equal 2009 draw) but wins have been non-existent. With that in mind, as well as the irrepressible form of Robin van Persie, the black and white army will travel up the Piccadilly Line more in hope than expectation tomorrow.
Arsene Wenger’s side have recovered their panache and air of invincibility since a stuttering start to the season caught everybody by surprise. The loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri over the summer would have tested any squad but there was an alarming vulnerability about their early season defending that struck you as, well, un-Arsenal. Per Mertesacker might not be the modern-day answer to Tony Adams but he and Wenger’s other late transfer window additions have provided greater durability to the Gunners defence, with Mikel Arteta offering some artistry to the midfield.
The Gunners looked back to something approaching their best in midweek against Borussia Dortmund, with van Persie at his imperious, goal-poaching best. The Dutch striker is such a gifted talent that you wonder what he – and Arsenal – would be able to achieve were he available for a full season. Reading the press reports, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the sole danger to Fulham’s hopes of an unlikely away point came from the Arsenal captain. Of course, it won’t be that easy at all. Quietly, Aaron Ramsey is having a storming season – and he looks especially effective when operating in the whole behind van Persie. The prospect of Theo Walcott’s pace against John Arne Riise is particularly worrying too.
Whilst Arsenal do still have the odd wobble at the back – witness Mertesacker’s generous gift of a goal to Norwich last week – Fulham haven’t looked anything approaching potent in front of goal lately. Bobby Zamora was largely ineffective up at Sunderland, well marshalled by Wes Brown, prior to his early departure due to injury. It’s likely that only one of Zamora and Andy Johnson, who looked quite a threat running in behind Sunderland in the second half, will start at the Emirates as playing with two strikers might be just a touch adventurous. What’s clear – as Jol has already emphasised in his pre-match comments – is that Fulham will have to be far more predatory in front of goal.
Injuries make the task far harder. Steve Sidwell will be missing again after undergoing a hernia operation last week. While the former Arsenal midfielder will be a big miss, it’s games like these that are made for Dickson Etuhu. The Nigerian midfielder has his critics – and I’ve been known to single him at times as well – but he was excellent up at Sunderland and excels against the smoother passers, getting in and breaking up play as well as restarting spells of Fulham possession. Perhaps the finest example of this came in Fulham’s goalless draw at the Emirates in 2009, where the Whites outpassed and outharried Arsenal at times. Etuhu was superb, anchoring the midfield alongside Danny Murphy, and Fulham will need the pair to be at their best again.
The absence of Damien Duff, sidelined by a calf injury, may create an opening for Bryan Ruiz, as we’ve discussed earlier today. Ruiz is apparently available to start games (even if Jol has questions about whether he is fully fit) and would be much more suited to taking on Arsenal, where there may be a little more time and more on offer as opposed to afternoons at Stoke or Wolves for example. It’s time that our £10 million plus man is given greater game time and he could flourish as part of an advanced trio of midfielders – also including Dembele and Dempsey – behind Zamora.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Baird, J.A. Riise, Hangeland, Senderos; Etuhu, Murphy; Dempsey, Ruiz, Dembele; Zamora. Subs: Etheridge, Baird, Hughes, Briggs, Kasami, Frei, Johnson.