Two in-form teams meet at Craven Cottage this afternoon. Traditionally sluggish starters, both Everton and Fulham have exploded out of the starting blocks this term and added an extra sense of adventure to their style of play, with their previous success largely built around miserly defences. It should make for an enthralling contest on a cold afternoon by the banks of the Thames and represents the greatest gauge of where the team Martin Jol is building sits in the Premier League pecking order.
Everton, who have plundered sixteen points from their first nine games in their best start in six years, have come in from some recently retracted criticism of their style of play from Steven Gerrard in the wake of last weekend’s Merseyside derby but David Moyes, who surely has to be a contender for the best pound-for-pound boss in Britain, is justified in calling his current charges the most entertaining side in the league. Moyes’ masterly management of a tight budget has seen him unearth countless cut-price gems and the team that has started this season in a hurry might be the best he’s assembled yet.
Jol waxed lyrical about the attacking options among the opposition ranks during his pre-match press conference yesterday, but the back five remains as solid as ever. Tim Howard remains one of the top flight’s most dependable custodians and, on the basis of Leighton Baines’ superb start, Ashley Cole should be very worried about his losing his coveted England number three shirt as Roy Hodgson plots a passage to Brazil. Such is Everton’s strength in central defence, Moyes has to perm two of Sylvain Distin, Johnny Heiteinga and Phil Jagielka, who himself has recently received overdue international recognition, and even Tony Hibbert, who has made more appearances against Fulham than any other Everton player, has cause to sweat over adding to that record this afternoon thanks to the eye-catching form of Seamus Coleman.
The Toffees’ trip to Craven Cottage used to be a home banker – perhaps in pity of Fulham’s poor record at Goodison Park – but you can have to go back more than three years for the Whites’ last win over Moyes’ men, secured by a late Damien Duff strike. Since then, Everton haven’t tasted defeat against Fulham – and they inflicted three damaging defeats on Jol’s side last season. The visitors certainly have the ammunition to extend that sequence, with Steven Pienaar poised to make his 150th start for the club on his return for suspension, and Belgian forward Kevin Mirallas likely to shake off a knock picked up against Liverpool. The Fulham back four will need no introduction to Nikita Jelavic, who terrorised them in a 4-0 thumping back in April, and already hit five goals this term.
Perhaps for the first time in their top flight tenure, Fulham have an attacking arsenal to keep opposing defences on their defences. Jol has admitted that his embarrassment of offensive options making selecting his strongest side difficult, but even the Dutchman would have been sweating on the results of a midweek scan on Dimitar Berbatov’s rib injury. Fulham look a far more threatening proposition with the Bulgarian in the side and the prospect of picking up from where he left off last week with Bryan Ruiz, whose sensational showing from the substitutes’ bench enlivened a previously fitful Fulham at Reading, is mouthwatering. Should Jol brave enough to pick Alex Kacaniklic, who has struggled to get a look in since his sensational impact on international duty with Sweden last month, in place of Hugo Rodallega – who was badly off-colour last week – the hosts might reap a real reward.
The flip side of Fulham’s new sense of adventure is that Jol’s lifting of the handbrake applied by Roy Hodgson as he was constructing a team that could leave relegation dogfights behind them has left a previously assured back line looking rather fragile. Where once set plays signalled little danger, they now seem to signal mass panic. The manner of the goals conceded in the final five minutes of normal time at the Madjeski Stadium would have been maddening, but the defensive disorganisation was doubly disappointing since it seemed Fulham hadn’t heeded the lesson of a letting in a late leveller at Southampton a few weeks earlier. Only the Saints have squandered more points from a winning position than Jol’s side – something they’ll badly need to rectify.
Moyes has insisted Everton can’t afford to rest on their laurels despite their first start, proclaiming the virtues of more points as they seek to make a sustained assault on the top four. Given the unpredictability of a division that is sure to get tighter as teams take points off each other, it’s a certainty that Jol has imparted similar words to his squad – even if Fulham’s goals aren’t quite as lofty. They have sustained a spot in the top half largely on the back of exceptional home form – and a return of 32 points from fourteen fixtures at Craven Cottage in the calendar year is the fourth best in the league. To add to it today, Jol’s team will have to be at their very best.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Diarra; Duff, Kacaniklic, Ruiz; Berbatov. Subs: Stockdale, Senderos, Sidwell, Richardson, Dejagah, Petric, Rodallega.