After last weekend’s rare away win, Fulham could record their first sequence of three straight wins since the Great Escape today. But assuming they will beat battling Wolves at Craven Cottage this afternoon is fraught with danger. First, Fulham hardly ever make things easy for themselves – even the victories over Stoke and QPR were patchy performances, with decidedly dicey periods within them and, second, Wolves showed plenty of stomach for the fight at Newcastle last week, coming back from 2-0 to earn a point for recently-installed caretaker manager Terry Connor.
Connor’s temporary promotion has been much discussed in the media with plenty of pundits casting doubt upon Wolves’ decision to part company with Mick McCarthy, especially after they were unable to attract a permanent replacement. This might be Connor’s first managerial role, but that hasn’t hindered success at seemingly beleaguered clubs in the past. Think of Chris Coleman, who last week showed so much dignity in dealing in the emotions surrounding Gary Speed’s memorial match, lifting Fulham away from the relegation dogfight in 2003. Furthermore, Connor is already a respected of Wolves’ back-room staff, with an established coaching pedigree, and has sensibly refused to overtly stamp his authority on the squad since being asked to take charge until the end of the season.
He made a big decision up at Newcastle last Saturday in axing Roger Johnson, who had been so impressive in spite of Birmingham’s second half of the season slump as the Blues ended up in the Championship. It didn’t look like the right call as the Magpies quickly built a 2-0 lead but no-one could doubt Wolves’ character, something that will prove crucial in the weeks ahead, after that. As well as deciding whether to bring back the deposed captain, Connor will have to consider whether how to incorporate the free-scoring Steven Fletcher into his side. The Scottish international missed the trip to St. James’ Park through illness, with Kevin Doyle coming in as a lone striker, and a simple straight swap could deter Wolves of possibly their most potent weapon: aerial ability and endeavour.
There are signs recently that Martin Jol’s project is beginning to take shape. The shift of Moussa Dembele into midfield seems to have freed the Belgian up to go on a few more of his mazy dribbles – such as the one that created the winner at Loftus Road. Jol has reiterated that he’ll control to use Dembele in a deeper role and the by-products of this decision are definitely positive. Bryan Ruiz has linked up well with Dembele of late and the pair’s range of passing opens up space behind a back four that the promising Pavel Pogrebnyak has only been too keen to exploit. The fluidity of Fulham’s front five offers plenty more opportunities in attack – and there are now few Fulham fans now quibbling with the departure of Bobby Zamora.
Jol has also developed at least three different systems that can be utilised depending on the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. The variance between 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 makes a pleasing change from the sometimes predictable set-up adopted by Roy Hodgson and indicates that the side are evolving. Indeed, the manager has to decide whether to change a winning formula this afternoon. Jol has already ignored the ‘never change a winning team’ mantra once of late, bringing back Andy Johnson to great effect at Loftus Road, and he could conceivably return Philippe Senderos to the heart of the Fulham defence to cope with the physical threat of Doyle and Fletcher. Fulham’s only injury doubts surround Stephen Kelly, who withdrew from the Ireland squad with a groin problem in midweek, and Dickson Etuhu, who has been closely monitored since returning from Nigeria’s draw with Rwanda.
The Pogrebnyak/Johnson axis worked well at QPR, even if the latter dropped into a far deeper position as the nail-biting second half edged towards its conclusion. The Russian has certainly demonstrated his eye for goal in his fortnight in English football and his movement to reach that delicious Dembele backheel last Saturday was just as sumptuous as his wrong-footing of a befuddled Paddy Kenny on his way to settling the derby. Jol could also call on new signing Mahamadou Diarra on some point, but given the Mali midfielder’s lack of match fitness, he is more likely to start on the bench.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Murphy, Dembele, Ruiz, Dempsey; Pogrebnyak, Johnson. Subs: Stockdale, Baird, Senderos, Diarra, Duff, Davies, Frei.