Fulham’s Christmas might not have been the happiest after the home mauling by Manchester United last Wednesday. Martin Jol’s chances of delivering some festive cheer always looked slim when the fixture list offered up games against the champions, Chelsea and Arsenal in swift succession, while now even the New Year’s Eve jaunt to Norwich looks like a stern test. Fulham haven’t won a local derby at Stamford Bridge since October 1979 – when Gordon Davies and John Beck scored the goals – and you have to go back to March 1964 for the last time the Whites recorded a top-flight win there.
The form book offers little hope of refusing that trend. The Whites have won just two out of their last nine fixtures and they face a Chelsea side desperate to prove their credentials at the other end of the table, with Andre Vilas-Boas in need of victories to put a tricky start to life in English football behind him. Defend as poorly as they did against the champions before Christmas and this tie will be over before half-time as well. Jol may take heart from the impressive showing of his second string in their League Cup meeting behind the two sides earlier this season, even if Fulham were beaten by ten-man Chelsea on penalties. The man sent off that night, Alex, has been omitted from Chelsea’s recent squads by Vilas- Boas after submitting a transfer request earlier this month and the manager has insisted there is no chance of a recall despite injuries leaving him short of options at centre back.
That should see David Luiz return from a knee injury to partner John Terry at the heart of the Chelsea defence. Branislav Ivanovic came off with an injury at White Hart Lane on Thursday so Paulo Ferreira could continue at right back after a long absence. Jose Bosingwa is on standby to reprise his role as an emergency centre back should be required once again. With John Obi Mikel a doubt after also being taken off injured at Tottenham, the impressive Spanish holding midfielder Oriol Romeu, who had a fine game against Fulham back in September, could come into central midfield. Whether the misfiring Fernando Torres uses the Boxing Day fixture to return to some kind of form depends on whether he makes the starting line-up. Vilas-Boas could well keep faith with the front three that has served him so well in recent weeks, with Danny Sturridge scoring in the London derby on Thursday.
Fulham have no new injury worries, with Steve Sidwell returning to training after a hernia operation and in with a chance of facing his former club. Jol might shuffle his pack after Wednesday’s humbling by the champions but not to the extent that he did for the League Cup three months ago. Then wholesale changes offered a chance for teenager Kerim Frei to shine, although the Swiss winger could step off the bench to good effect as he did at Swansea earlier this month. The likes of Stephen Kelly and Matthew Briggs are in contention for a start should Jol wish to change his full-backs while Bobby Zamora could be preferred to Andy Johnson after the latter’s misses against Manchester United. Zamora’s physicality would give Fulham a presence up front they so often lack on the road, but whether his rumoured feud with his manager limits him to a place on the bench remains to be seen.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Stockdale; Kelly, Briggs, Hangeland, Senderos; Etuhu, Murphy; Dempsey, Dembele, Ruiz; Zamora. Subs: Etheridge, Baird, Hughes, Sidwell, Frei, Duff, Johnson.