Several Fulham players have spoken in the run-up to today’s game at Norwich of their desire to end the year on a high with a win on New Year’s Eve. That will be much easier said that done. Paul Lambert’s side have enjoyed a terrific start on their return to the top flight, playing some fine, flowing football and are a tricky proposition at Carrow Road. Despite being outclassed by Tottenham on Tuesday night, the Canaries approach the mid-point of the season in eleventh place and seven points clear of the drop zone. Nothing is won at this stage of the season but they have certainly exceeded expectations so far.
Somewhat surprisingly, only the current top four have scored more league goals at home than Norwich. The evergreen Grant Holt, a willing worker and a man of no mean skill as Everton will attest to after his superb goal at Goodison Park earlier in the season, has forged an effective partnership with Steve Morison, the former Millwall striker who Mark Hughes was interested in this time last year, up front. The pair have scored thirteen goals between them and will be certain to give Martin Jol’s preferred central defensive partnership of Aaron Hughes and Philippe Senderos a real workout this afternoon.
Lambert’s diamond-shaped midfield offers plenty of creativity too. Bradley Johnson, a shrewd signing from Leeds, was left out of the side that played Spurs in midweek but could be contention to return today. In his absence, the former Manchester United David Fox, who arrived on a free transfer from Colchester, anchored the midfield with Andrew Crofts and the impressive Andrew Surnam sitting in front of Wes Hoolahan. The system has left sides struggling to get to grips with Norwich’s fluidity at times and Fulham will need to earn the right to play by disrupting the opposition’s flow as swiftly as possible this afternoon.
Jol’s side will be looking to inflict Norwich’s first back-to-back home defeats of this campaign. They will travel to East Anglia in good heart on the back of an encouraging draw at Chelsea, secured by Clint Dempsey’s smartly-taken equaliser. Injuries forced Jol to reshuffle his pack for the Boxing Day derby and he sent out a very offensively-minded line-up that delivered an enterprising display, which more than merited the point. With Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora expected to be unavailable again this afternoon, Portuguese striker Orlando Sa is likely to lead the line again.
Jol’s main decision will be whether to stick with the 4-1-4-1 formation that so flummoxed Chelsea. It may be a little open for a second game on the spin, especially considering Norwich’s formidable home record, but it is perhaps the closest we’ve come to a glimpse of Jol’s footballing philosophy since he arrived at Craven Cottage. It may leave the defence calling frequently on David Stockdale, who outstanding at Stamford Bridge, again. Deploying two out-and-out wingers in young Kerim Frei and Bryan Ruiz resulted in Fulham possessing far more attacking threat than usual on the road and posed plenty of questions to the Chelsea defence. It would certainly be nice to see the talented Frei get another opportunity to impress.
Alternatively, Jol could revert to the 4-2-3-1 he has utilised for much of the season. Danny Murphy was excellent in the slightly deeper, defensive role he occupied at Stamford Bridge and there are no shortage of contenders to slot in alongside him should the manager change the system. Dickson Etuhu has been in fine form since he came back into the side and the Nigerian will want to put on a good display on his first return to Carrow Road. Steve Sidwell is back to full fitness after his hernia operation, while Marcel Gecov and Chris Baird could also do a job in central midfield.
Victory this afternoon could see Fulham leapfrog Norwich and, depending on other results, reach the top half in time for the turn of the year. That would illustrate just how tight things remain at the bottom of the table. Jol’s team is still one in transition and we’ll get a greater idea of where he’s going once the transfer window opens. It is likely that Fulham will be fairly active in January, but the signs are promising after a somewhat unsteady start.
MY FULHAM XI (4-1-4-1): Stockdale; Kelly, J.A. Riise, Senderos, Hangeland; Murphy; Dembele, Dempsey, Ruiz, Frei; Sa. Subs: Etheridge, Baird, Briggs, Gecov, Sidwell, Etuhu, Kasami.