Martin Jol was sounding a realistic note during his pre-match press conference yesterday, acknowledging Manchester City’s phenomenal home record and lamenting his own side’s travel sickness. With Roberto Mancini sure to demand that his side deliver a fired-up response to their defeat by Everton in midweek, the pessimist in me wonders whether the Premier League’s first ever free-to-air fixture might be a massacre. Given some of Fulham’s defensive deficiencies lately, it’s not out of the question.
That’s disregarding Fulham’s fine record on the blue side of Manchester though. The Londoners are unbeaten on their last four visits to Eastlands, dating back to that Lazarus-like recovery that kickstarted the Great Escape. They have lost just once in their last six trips – and that was after extra time in a League Cup tie where Roy Hodgson played a shadow side. Even Jol has an impressive record against City. He hasn’t been beaten in seven league meetings – and the comeback at Craven Cottage this season was his first draw after six wins.
But Fulham will need more than merely faith in statistics to preserve that proud record this evening. They might have been the last team to avoid defeat at City last February, but Mancini’s attacking arsenal is truly frightening. Even without the suspended Mario Balotelli, the Italian can still call upon Eden Dzeko, David Silva, Samir Nasri and no Fulham fan will need reminding about the danger posed by Sergio Aguero. When you consider both Vincent Kompany and Micah Richards should return to strengthen the league leaders’ defence and that Fulham have the worst away attack in the league (having managed just seven goals in eleven games), it’s not difficult to envisage a disappointing evening.
In the absence of Steve Sidwell, who has suffered a recurrence of the groin injury that sidelined him for much of 2011, Dickson Etuhu should return to the centre of midfield. The Nigerian had been left out of Jol’s squad of late – as his demands for a regular spot and then a move away tried the Dutchman’s patience – but, with his short-term future resolved, Etuhu should add some bite and drive to Fulham’s midfield. In truth, he was rather unlucky to lose his place to Sidwell so soon after some fine performances, especially away from home against Sunderland and Arsenal. The 29 year-old, who started his career with City, always seem to play well when he comes up against them – memorably scoring the equaliser to spark Fulham’s second half comeback in April 2009.
The bigger decisions will come at opposite ends of the pitch. With Mark Schwarzer reportedly ready to return from a neck injury, does Jol drop David Stockdale? The England number three has done well since replacing the Australian veteran in mid-December – with a fine display at Stamford Bridge springing to mind – but he hasn’t been blameless. As I argued last night, the smart long-term choice would be to give Stockdale the shirt to continue his development but, with all the pressure on them these days, Premier League managers don’t tend to think beyond the next set of fixtures – and who can blame them.
With Andy Johnson still sidelined by a groin problem and Fulham still awaiting Pavel Pogrebnyak’s international clearance, Jol will probably persevere with Clint Dempsey as a lone striker even if Moussa Dembele is fit to play after a heel injury. The Belgian has looked most effective as a withdrawn forward and should be given an opportunity to fill Bobby Zamora’s boots, allowing Dempsey to make those late darting runs from midfield. There’s a reason in such a rich vein of form and that’s due to his nous in the penalty area. Fulham probably won’t spend much time in the City area tonight, so by using Dembele to occupy defenders, the American could exploit the space to great effect.
The only question mark surrounds who should be sacrificed to make way for the returning Dembele. Simon Davies started brightly against West Brom but faded in the second period, understandably given how few full ninety matches he has completed in the last 18 months. Damien Duff has scored on his last two visits to City and his defensive diligence and work ethic might be badly needed today.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Stockdale; Kelly, J.A. Riise, Hangeland, Senderos; Etuhu, Murphy; Duff, Ruiz, Dempsey; Dembele. Subs: Schwarzer, Hughes, Baird, Kasami, Frei, Davies, Trotta.