After pushing the league leaders all the way at Craven Cottage last weekend, Fulham’s task is to build on that promising performance with a similar showing at Carrow Road this afternoon. Martin Jol’s side have not really returned to the sparkling manner in which they started the season – by putting five goals past Norwich in the summer sunshine – and both sides are still in search of the points that would secure their top flight status for another year.
Chris Hughton has won plenty of plaudits for lifting the Canaries up the table after a tough start having succeeded Paul Lambert but Norwich have yet to win in 2013 and they sit seven points above the drop zone after a goalless draw at relegation-threatened Queen’s Park Rangers last Saturday. The extension of that winless streak owed much to the heroics of Julio Cesar in the QPR goal, although Hughton’s side were indebted to a splendid penalty save from Mark Bunn, for preserving parity.
This Norwich side have had a happy knack of punching above their weight since their return to the top flight and Hughton has assembled a side that certainly doesn’t look out of place at English football’s top table. The quietly efficient Robert Snodgrass, excellent since his move for Leeds a couple of years, became the first player to put in a hundred crosses in the Premier League last weekend and, with that level of service, it’s easy to see why Grant Holt has floruished up front. It’s not just the Scottish winger’s delivery that has been consistent – with four goals, Snodgrass is Norwich’s joint-top scorer in the league. The Glaswegian has also created four goals and completed more passes in the opposition’s half than any of his team-mates.
The strength of Norwich’s midfield has been crucial to their success this season. Like Snodgrass, Anthony Pilkington has also made his mark in the opposition box – finding the net four times in the league – but his diligent defensive work has proved just as vital. The Republic of Ireland international can operate in a number of positions, but gets through his fair share of tackling even when deployed in an advanced role. Pilkington has an impressive 73% success rate in the tackle this term and with Bradley Johnson and Alex Tettey expected to continue their formidable partnership at the heart of the Norwich engine room, the likes of Giorgos Karagounis and Chris Baird will have their work cut out to remain competitive this afternoon.
Breaching Norwich’s defence will be the matter most occupying Jol’s mind ahead of this fixture. The goals have dried up somewhat since the free-scoring early weeks of the season and the Fulham manager will have to make a late decision about Dimitar Berbatov’s fitness. The Bulgarian striker missed a reunion with Manchester United after limping out of the victory over West Ham with a hamstring strain and is rated as ‘only 50-50’ to be fit enough to start. Hugo Rodallega’s rugged running caused plenty of problems for the United defence last Saturday, but Fulham missed Berbatov’s clinical finishing and understanding with the mercurial Bryan Ruiz, who could also be unavailable after international duty in midweek.
With Steve Sidwell also likely to miss out with his knee injury, Jol will ask Karagounis to continue his whole-hearted performances in central midfield. The Greek veteran has proved a revelation since signing as a free agent to fill the gaping void left by the summer departures of Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu, Clint Dempsey and Mousa Demebele, belying his senior status with displays brimming with desire and energy. Karagounis has popped up with a couple of crucial, goals and added a combination of steel and sense that Fulham have badly been lacking during Mahamadou Diarra’s long absence with his own knee problem. The vitality of on-loan midfielder Urby Emmanuelson, glimpsed in a second-half cameo against Manchester United last week, could provide another option from the bench.
Stringing together consistent performances has been a big problem of late for Fulham, although they will travel to Carrow Road full of confidence, given that their record at Norwich belies their usual Premier League travel sickness. The Whites haven’t lost at Carrow Road for nearly seventeen years – winning on three of their last four visits. They were only denied a fourth straight victory by Simeon Jackson’s last-minute equaliser in the corresponding fixture on New Year’s Eve last season.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Karagounis, Duff, Dejagah; Berbatov, Rodallega. Subs: Etheridge, Manolev, Senderos, Frimpong, Emmanuelson, Davies, Petric.