The international break seems to have lasted much longer than the thirteen days that separate the sickening concession of Jose Fonte’s last-gasp leveller on the south coast from early morning optimism as Aston Villa come to town. The natural reaction to the concession of another late goal to follow Edin Dzeko’s winner for Manchester City at the Putney End the previous weekend was one of fatalistic acceptance of a frankly Fulhamish away display, but given that St. Mary’s served an insane afternoon of pulsating football, a more reasoned assessment – reached on reflection, admittedly – left you grateful for a point after Martin Jol’s side had delivered a dreadful first half performance.
You don’t need to have more than a passing knowledge of the Premier League these days to know that Fulham might as well enter two different sides in the competition: a Craven Cottage XI and the team that travels more out of neccessity than any hope. Jol did diligently improve the Whites’ away record last season, but playing Fulham at their historic home ground is not something many teams relish. Before Roberto Mancini’s men finally broke down dogged resistance last month, Jol’s side had scored eight without reply at the Cottage and Mladen Petric, Dimitar Berbatov and – most miraculously of all – Mahamadou Diarra – all available for selection again after injury, there’s an unsettling unexpectation that Fulham should pose some problems for Paul Lambert’s side this afternoon.
Lambert succeeds a compatriot in the Villa dugout after Alex McLeish’s ill-fated arrival from the blue half of Birmingham failed to provide too many sparks. The former Blues boss began with a goalless draw at the Cottage last August – a game that was also Jol’s first league match since replacing Mark Hughes – but the early weeks of the new season have only served to underline what a huge task Lambert has taken on after his impressive stewardship of Norwich City. Villa, who look as though they are badly missing the influence of Richard Dunne at the heart of their defence, have scored just five goals in their last twelve league games and Lambert has had to field questions about the squad status of some of his big earners, especially Darren Bent, who could be omitted again in favour of Christian Benteke, who scored twice for Belgium in the week.
While Villa search for a first away league success since January, Jol will hope his side can recover some of their early-season verve as his key players return. Petric had an electric start to the season, but hasn’t been fully fit since mid-September, and the prospect of the Croatian rekindling his exciting partnership with fit-again Berbatov points towards Brad Guzan having a busy afternoon. Jol will have a few interesting selection dilemmas before handing in the teamsheet with Bryan Ruiz, who injured a groin whilst with Costa Rica this week, facing a late fitness test. Fulham have badly missed Diarra’s dynamism in midfield but whether the former Monaco man is sharp enough to return to the starting line-up remains to be seen.
It would certainly be harsh if Diarra displaced either Chris Baird, whose picture should appear next to ‘utility man’ in the next Oxford English Dictionary, or former Villa midfielder Steve Sidwell, who admitted this week that he feared for his career after his hernia injury turned into a groin problem that baffled a succession of doctors. With the likes of Kieron Richardson and Giorgis Karagounis, who together turned the tide of that mad match at Southampton as second half substitutes, pushing for places and Kerim Frei and Ashkan Dejagah – impressive in the Under-21’s dismantling of Chelsea – available again, Jol suddenly looks spoilt for choice in midfield.
Villa might have endured their worst start since the First Division became the Premier League, with a paltry five points from seven games, but there’s plenty of talent at Lambert’s disposal. Brett Holman will hope to test his international colleague Mark Schwarzer, who has made more saves than any other top flight custodian so far this season, and if Fabian Delph and Marc Albrighton can return to the heights that made the pair two of the brightest talents in English football, then there should be plenty for the likes of Benteke and Gabby Agbonlahor, always irritating good against Fulham, to feed off. Lambert’s latest employers have only lost three of their last 22 top flight tussles with Fulham and have drawn five of their last eight fixtures at the Cottage. It should be fascinating.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Diarra, Sidwell; Duff, Ruiz, Berbatov; Petric. Subs: Stockdale, Briggs, Baird, Karagounis, Richardson, Kacaniklic, Rodallega.