There’s a real air of optimism around Fulham at the moment. So much so that people are, in all seriousness, speaking favourably of our chances of winning back-to-back away games. Such a scenario would usually be the sign that your good friend was losing their marbles given Fulham’s historical underachievement away from Craven Cottage. But, the strength of the three-game winning streak, the quality of the football that Martin Jol’s side are now playing and discontent at Villa Park, mean there is cause for confidence as the Whites face Aston Villa tomorrow.
Alex McLeish’s tenure on the claret side of the city hasn’t even been a qualified success. Villa fans bemoan his conservatism, especially with so many talented youngsters just waiting to be let off the leash. They feel McLeish is stifling the attacking tendencies of what could be a very impressive forward-thinking side with his use of a rigid system, although in the Scot’s defence he has admitted modelling both of his sides on the template that Roy Hodgson used to such great effect at Fulham. With buy money signings seemingly a thing of the past under Randy Lerner – although the American owner has far from given up on McLeish – Villa have faded badly from the time when they were once considered genuine contenders for a Champions’ League place under Martin O’Neill.
The home side will be without Darren Bent, their most potent goal threat, tomorrow afternoon. The England international, who had scored ten times for Villa, saw his season – and his dreams of going to the European Championships – ended when he ruptured his ankle ligaments at Wigan ten days ago. Bent is already talking about returning in term to take a place in the British Olympic squad, whilst Gabby Agbonlahor has been speaking about his chance to replace Bent for both club and country. Agbonlahor’s lightening pace – and his penchant for scoring against Fulham – will certainly test the visitors’ rearguard, which has been more miserly of late.
Villa do also have an abundance of quality in midfield too. Stephen Ireland has shown glimpses of the form that saw him burst onto the scene so impressively with Manchester City whilst Charles N’Zogbia certainly can’t be underestimated. Factor in the often under-appreciated Stiliyan Petrov pulling the strings in a deeper midfield role, with the likes of Marc Albrighton and Barry Bannan presenting all the promise of the future generation, and you can sense that Danny Murphy and Moussa Dembele will have to be defensively disciplined to gain a foothold in the game.
The statistics, though, mean that McLeish will be desperate for a good start. His Villa side are without a home league win in seven matches mustering just thirteen points at Villa Park all season. It’s not a happy camp, either, at the moment. Fulham will hope to exploit that and their cause will be aided by the absence of the injured Richard Dunne. Jol also might need to do some defensive reorganisation with former Villa defender Aaron Hughes, who deputised for the missing Stephen Kelly and Chris Baird at right back against Wolves last Sunday, described as ‘a major doubt’.
Bryan Ruiz is back in full training and available for selection after missing the Wolves romp through illness, but Damien Duff had such an impressive game last week that I’d be tempted to keep the Costa Rican on the bench. You’d expect little change from Jol given that his fluid 4-4-2 overwhelmed Wolves and should have put the game beyond QPR before half-time. Jol’s side will have to break a bit of hoodoo if they are to head back to the capital with all three points, however, as Fulham haven’t managed a Premier League win at Villa Park in ten attempts.
Their best chance of ending that sequence comes in the form of Pavel Pogrebnyak. The Russian striker has been an instant hit since signing on a short-term deal from Stuttgart on transfer deadline day. Pogrebnyak’s five goals in just three games have allowed everybody to forget about Bobby Zamora – and American midfielder Clint Dempsey has weighed in with vital strikes throughout the campaign. Jol’s deployment of Dembele in central midfield has been a superb decision – and Fulham will be hoping that their Belgian wizard finds enough room to roam tomorrow afternoon.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, J.A. Riise, Senderos, Hangeland; Murphy, Dembele, Duff, Dempsey; Pogrebnyak, Johnson. Subs: Stockdale, Hughes, Diarra, Davies, Ruiz, Frei, Sa.