The 2008/09 season ended – despite a party atmosphere in the stands – with a whimper on the pitch. The final visitors to the Cottage were David Moyes’ Everton, and they ran the Whites somewhat ragged – breaking the record that the home team always wins this fixture in the Premier League. The form showed in last season’s finale has continued so far this term with no Fulham player putting the ball through the (correct) net in the league. Well, from a shot on goal at least.
This fixture in the past has provided some crucial wins for the west Londoners, none more so than Brian McBride’s winner that kept the club fighting for the 2007/08 great escape. It would be fitting, then, if Fulham were to wipe the slate clean in this game and return things to normal, i.e. a home win. Of course, if Danny Murphy remains on the sidelines, the odds of three home points look far longer – and you can be sure, as an ex-Red, he will be fighting to play.
The international break came at a very good time in terms of the captain’s recovery and to allow the players to regroup in order to kick-start their season on Sunday, although Clint Dempsey could have done without Wednesday’s trip to the Caribbean – the midfielder looked jaded and in severe need of a few weeks’ actual rest. The American did not have a summer break – playing in the Confederations Cup for the USA instead – and has looked far from his creative best in the white of Fulham thus far. Playing 82 minutes when it was clear he was not at the races was an error by US Coach Bob Bradley and it is now unlikely Dempsey will have much of a say on Sunday. But if Dempsey is allowed time to recuperate (which is in itself unlikely), who might start? Someone with a lot of running, ideally. Everton has a very dangerous midfield with wide men who run all day long – as shown by Leon Osman’s two goals back in May – who, if the threat is to be nullified, will have to be matched by Fulham. A tired Dempsey is the last thing the Whites need and so, only on the basis Simon Davies is still not match-fit, this writer would suggest Zoltan Gera instead of Dempsey. Although the Hungarian needs to work on his attacking, he at least tracks back – hopefully enough to help Pantsil cope with the Toffees’ width.
Everton’s other threat is, as ever, Tim Cahill playing off the striker. He is another reason it is imperative Murphy is fit so that Dickson Etuhu can once again focus on what he does best – stopping attacks through the centre. When alongside his captain, Etuhu is a monster. He eats up the turf and throws his weight around – complementing the delicate passing style of Murphy. Alongside another, less attack-minded central midfielder, the Nigerian instead looks like he is hiding from monsters. Most importantly, when with Murphy, Etuhu is assured in front of the defence, which spreads to them and allows for a far more composed performance. Frankly, it is worrying for Fulham fans that their skipper is so sorely missed when absent and they will be hoping that Greening – captain himself when at West Brom – can adapt quickly and ease the pressure Etuhu feels when his partner in crime is not around.
Speaking of partners in crime, one half of the usual strike duo should return in time to face the Toffees. Bobby Zamora – the Whites’ only league scorer (they all count) – is a physical presence much needed against a militant Everton side. While his finishing ability is always questioned his strength cannot be – a trait neither Diomansy Kamara nor Erik Nevland possess and one which is key against teams such as the Toffees.
That should leave the only two first team players on the sidelines both ex-Evertonians. Fulham fans would love to see Andy Johnson hustling his old side, pressuring the defence into mistakes and, equally, long for the return of Davies – 2007/08’s Player of the Year. The Welshman would take a large amount of pressure off Murphy as the sole creative force. He is training, and impressed in a practice games against Chelsea this week, and when he does finally return it will be like a new signing for the Cottagers.
As it is, Fulham’s fit players must turn the break from domestic football to their advantage and get another win on the board before the Europa League schedule begins. Those that did not represent their countries must infect the rest with energy, or risk being stretched by a lively Everton. Fulham’s season officially starts on Sunday and hopefully for the Cottagers, contrary to how the last one ended.
Fulham Club Focus
Long season ahead – July 29
Confirmed: Zamora’s foot does fit in his mouth – August 5
Fulham needs Brede to survive – August 12
How do Fulham push on? – August 18
Roy Hodgson raids the Post Office queue – August 21
Lethargic Cottagers slump to derby defeat – August 25
Makeshift Cottagers shuffle into Europa League – August 28
No ammunition from midfield as Cottagers continue to fire blanks – September 1
Window shut firmly for Fulham – September 4
Hodgson must adapt to rid closet of skeletons – September 8
Forget August, the season starts now – September 11