Even though it didn’t feel like after injury time, there were plenty of positives to take from what was always likely to be a disappointing evening at Old Trafford on Monday. Martin Jol sprung a couple of surprises – in once again omitting Danny Murphy and including young Kerim Frei on the wing – and Fulham’s performance were actually far more positive than many were expecting. The game was pretty even for the first twenty minutes and had the visitors had a little more belief and adventure they might well have grabbed a goal during a bright start.
But points aren’t awarded for promise – and after the euphoria of mid-March’s mini-run of wins, things have rather been shunted off track. Fulham might have been unlucky to be beaten by virtually the last kick of the game at Villa Park but Jol’s charges were completely outplayed by a Swansea side who find almost as difficult as us to get a result away from home and haven’t won scored in three straight fixtures. Remarkably for a side that’s struggled for goals during our ten-year stay in the top flight, Fulham have never gone four Premier League fixtures without scoring. They’ll need a change of fortune if they are to breach a Norwich side that have been very impressive on their return to English football’s top table.
Paul Lambert has to be one of the leading contenders for manager of the season as he’s constructed a side that are honest, watchable and very successful. They might be without talisman Grant Holt, after the evergreen striker was dismissed against Wolves last week, but so effortless has been their acclimatisation to Premier League life, that it’s no longer a worry. Simeon Jackson, who has come off the bench to great effect so far this season (not least when he poached a stoppage-time equaliser in the reverse fixture at Carrow Road) is a lively deputy and City will travel to south west London seeking to avenge that painful 6-0 defeat that extinguished any hope of survival on the final day of the season back in 2005.
Relegation is the least of Lambert’s concerns at the moment. Indeed, with eight games to go, Norwich sit in a healthy eleventh place some three points clear of their hosts this afternoon. They are some nineteen points better off than their were at this stage seven seasons ago, something which owes much to their belief and desire. The Canaries have recouped thirteen points from losing positions during the course of this campaign – and without that haul they would be locked in a battle against the drop. Lambert’s side also oozes energy: look at the lung-busting runs of Kyle Naughton from right wing-back and the creativity of Jonny Howson, a smart steal from Leeds in the January transfer window. In the absence of Holt, watch for the physical presence of Steve Morison, once rumoured to be a Mark Hughes’ target when he was at Millwall a couple of seasons ago.
Jol will do without four members of his squad for a game he’ll surely as earmarked as a realistic return to winning ways. He may also be without Andy Johnson, who missed Monday’s trip to Old Trafford with a knee injury. Italian youngster Marcello Trotta was on the bench against United and could be joined by the man he spent time on loan at Watford with, Alex Kacaniklic, in the squad today. Jol heavily hinted that the Swedish winger, who was very impressive during his seven weeks at Vicarage Road before being recalled on Thursday, could be involved against Norwich during his pre-match press conference.
The Fulham manager’s other dilemma will be how to set the right tempo, given that Fulham have been ridiculously inconsistent of late – following three wins with three successive defeats. The Whites were far better at Old Trafford once Danny Murphy arrived as a second half substitute and the skipper should really replace Mahmadou Diarra, even though the Mali midfielder clearly needs games to build up his fitness, this afternoon. Even at his age, the veteran midfielder remains the heartbeat of the Fulham side and our attacking threat is far more productive without him in the team. The other question will surround whether to retain Kerim Frei, who faded a little in the second half against United but was very impressive against Norwich on New Year’s Eve.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Baird, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Murphy, Dembele; Duff, Dempsey, Frei; Pogrebnyak. Subs: Stockdale, Kelly, Senderos, Diarra, Ruiz, Kacaniklic, Trotta.