After their ignominious exit from the Europa League, Martin Jol and his Fulham players would have regarded the FA Cup as an opportunity to add some colour to what has been a topsy-turvy season. They played some swashbuckling football at times as Charlton Athletic, who played far better than the mere statistics of their 4-0 defeat suggested, were swept aside in round three, but the draw for the next round had faces in hands. Fulham’s record at Everton since returning to the top flight is wretched – and that’s being polite. Ten league defeats on the bounce and only six goals scored doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence.
On the flip side, the Whites have never lost an FA Cup tie to Everton, having recorded three wins and four draws in their seven previous meetings. If you really do believe in omens, you might set a great deal of store by the fact that our last visit to Goodison Park in the Cup came in the year we went all the way to Wembley, with Viv Busby scoring both the goals in a 2-1 fifth round win. All this really tells us is that old adage about being able to prove anything with statistics remains true.
Fulham should travel to Merseyside in good heart following that thumping win over Newcastle last weekend. But there are familiar concerns going into the game tonight, which was switched to a Friday on police advice as Liverpool are also drawn at home – to Manchester United – in the same round of fixtures. First, there’s our dismal away record. Aside from the win at Wigan, who currently sit at the foot of the Premier League table, back in October, all of Fulham’s wins on the road came in the qualifying or group stages of the Europa League and three success in eighteen games doesn’t suggest Jol has come close to curing our travel sickness. And then there’s the question of just win Fulham might turn up. Jol’s side have been notoriously slow starters this season, often trailing at half-time, and the first half performance against Newcastle on Saturday was one of the worst of the campaign. They can’t afford to be such accommodating guests this evening.
Everton aren’t exactly on an inspiring run of form recently either. David Moyes has had little money with which to supplement his meagre playing resources and the resentment at Bill Kenwright’s stewardship of the club has been growing of late. The Toffees sit fourteenth in the league and the likes of Bolton and QPR have already recorded wins at Goodison Park this season. Moyes’ already threadbare squad has been ravaged by injuries once again with Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin, Leon Osman, Seamus Coleman and Jack Rodwell all likely to be unavailable this evening. That injury crisis could see Tony Hibbert pressed into service as a centre half tonight. Tim Cahill did score end a thirteen month goal drought in the otherwise disappointing draw against Blackburn at the weekend, while former Fulham striker Louis Saha, who always seems to score against his old club, could be asked to lead the line just in front of the dangerous Australian.
Jol has a couple of questions to ponder over as he prepares his side for tonight. Should he start with Andy Johnson, who will be desperate to put in a good showing on his return to Everton, after his game-changing performance at the weekend? The striker’s introduction as a first-half replacement for the injured Steve Sidwell gave Fulham far more bite up front and he revived his partnership with the previously quiet Bobby Zamora to devastating effect in the second period. Sidwell might be fit to continue in central midfield but his inclusion would be harsh on Chris Baird, who came on to help spark Fulham’s comeback on Saturday. Does Bryan Ruiz, taken off at half-time after a disappointing display against the Magpies, deserve another start or would he best utilised from the bench? And can Clint Dempsey, after two hat-tricks in as many weeks, continue his explosive goalscoring form to retain Fulham’s interest in the competition?
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Stockdale; Kelly, J.A. Riise, Hangeland, Senderos; Baird, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Zamora, Johnson. Subs: Etheridge, Briggs, Hughes, Etuhu, Sidwell, Frei, Ruiz.