Craven Cottage was where Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City dropped their first Premier League points on their way to a remarkable league title last season. The traditional ground by the Thames witnessed a collapse that asked the first questions of a defence that seemed impregnable and cast some doubt on Mancini’s managerial methods, with City surrending a seemingly safe 2-0 lead, with carelessness of a Campania drunk after he had withdrawn the sizzling David Silva with twenty minutes to play. Fulham profited astonishingly, but they will have to soar to similar heights this afternoon without the two goalscorers that afternoon and the man who has been the catalyst for early season optimism, with Dimitar Berbatov sidelined by an untimely thigh strain.
Mancini’s confidence in his charges wasn’t dented by their Cottage capitulation – or when City seemed dead and buried behind their Manchester rivals as last season reached its unscriptable denounement – and the Italian has reasserted his belief that his team can retain their title in the run-up to this game. However vulnerable City might appear, without a clean sheet, having shipped six points in their first fifteen, Mancini will demand his side return to their peerless best this afternoon. For all of Fulham’s recent success on the blue side of Manchester (relatively speaking), you have to go back to a Friday night thrashing of the Second Division promotion favourites inspired by Dirk Lehmann on an unforgettable Friday evening in August 1998 for Fulham’s last home win against City.
Replicating that victory – or even last season’s point (which felt like three) – would be difficult enough if Martin Jol had a full strength side to pick from. The fact that he doesn’t should really lead to a re-examination of the pre-match preparations down at Motspur Park. Berbatov’s thigh injury, sustained towards the end of training on Thursday, means he joins the likes of Mahmadou Diarra and Kerim Frei on the long-term injury list whilst Simon Davies, Kieran Richardson, Ashkan Dejagah and Phillipe Senderos aren’t likely to be fit enough to feature. Fulham have made light out of Diarra’s absence for two weekends running, with Chris Baird and Steve Sidwell exceptional in the heart of the midfield, but quelling the combined might of Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure is a tough test for world class midfielders. We’ll wait to see with interest when Greek veteran Giorgis Karagounis makes his first Fulham appearance.
Berbatov’s unavailability also leaves Jol with a dilemma. The Dutchman’s instincts – that Hugo Rodallega would ‘do something nice’ against his old club – were proved right at Wigan, but it was harsh to drop Mladen Petric after the Croatian’s blistering start to life in the Premier League. And what about Bryan Ruiz who added both momentum and vitality to Fulham’s midfield after his second half introduction at the DW Stadium last weekend? Can you afford to fit both of these special talents into the same side against the champions? It all comes down to how Jol will approach the task at hand. He’s proven to be far less risk-averse than Hodgson and Hughes so far – and his adventure has been rewarded with two ridiculously comfortable home wins to date.
Containing a City side that could feature Mario Balotelli, Samir Nasri as well as Silva and the old scourge of Fulham’s ambitions, Sergio Aguero, will present the sturdiest test of Jol’s defensive foundations. Aguero, outstanding in the Europa League final for Atletico Madrid two years ago, scored twice in this fixture last season and added a penalty in the February snow, will pose a real problem for Brede Hangeland, who has always looked a against little less assured against fleet-footed forwards. He’ll need Aaron Hughes to be at his best and perhaps for the Fulham back four, with Sascha Riether and John Arne Riise tucking in, to be narrower than normal to meet the challenge of City’s compact front four.
Joe Hart has had to worry about the fewest shots of any Premier League goalkeeper, with City’s miserly back four, masterfully screened by Toure when he isn’t let off the leash, allowing their opponents just 15 efforts on goal in their first five fixtures. The key to testing England’s outstanding goalkeeper on a more regular basis will be utilising one of Fulham’s great strengths: their width. Damien Duff has already scored three Premier League goals, but his contribution must be measured in more than those statistics alone, while the emergence of Alex Kacaniklic has been one of the quiet successes of Jol’s time at the helm to date. If they can successfully test two forward-thinking full backs in Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta, it could be quite an afternoon.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Sidwell; Duff, Kacaniklic, Ruiz; Petric. Subs: Stockdale, Kelly, Briggs, Karagounis, Kasami, Rodallega, Trotta.