Fulham’s two squads (one for the league, the other for European fixtures), after Wednesday’s narrow defeat at Manchester City, could be more interchangeable than first imagined. Should the supposed first XI continue to play as they did against Wolves, then some of them might – and indeed should – find themselves in full kit on the cold Thursday nights in Europe.
That is, of course, all the while the reserve side continues to show bite and a desire to start in the Premier League. A glaring David Stockdale error and a little rustiness aside, Wednesday’s game was another promising display, and even Zoltan Gera impressed this time. The Hungarian has the tendency to drift in and out of seasons, but a thumping 30-yard half-volley was a statement of intent from the midfielder who, in fairness, is not utilised in his strongest position off the front two.
A goal – and to a large extent, a performance – of such quality, in this writer’s opinion merits a chance in the team should Clint Dempsey continue to prove how desperate he is for a rest. Even though Gera has failed to show the Cottage faithful why Roy Hodgson brought him to the club, his quality was undeniable at Eastlands – and the ability to produce such moments can often make all the difference in games, just ask Damien Duff.
Another positive from the City game was young centre-back Chris Smalling. He did not have a good game in his last appearance against CSKA Sofia but was much improved against Mark Hughes’ side. Decent young players are like gold dust at Fulham – the club does not have the best record of nurturing young talent, but Hodgson is utilising Smalling – and indeed Stockdale, although the goalkeeper had his worst game so far against the Citizens – perfectly, giving him enough field time to develop, and in low enough profile games so that his mistakes are not scrutinised. Perhaps he will give Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland something to think about in the near future?
If Hodgson does intend to start rotating his squad and give his fringe players who perform a chance in the team, then this will have the added benefit of giving the (usually set in stone) first team players a wake-up call. Perhaps last season, with less players than this, there was room at times for complacency and jadedness – namely the home midweek defeats to Hull City and Blackburn Rovers – but now, with Gera, Chris Baird, Jonathan Greening and the like all chomping at the bit, Hodgson could show his ruthless streak by dropping some regular starters if they fail to perform. And Greening himself is a believer: “There’s depth and real quality throughout at Fulham. The boss can call on anybody now and some of the boys put on some good performances against Manchester City.” Such an act was unthinkable and, in fact, laughable last term.
Speaking of laughable, the Daily Mail seems desperate for one of Fulham’s most consistent performers to leave the Cottage as they have recently conjured a story from nothing. The well-known hack Sportsmail reporter managed to work out that Arsenal are going to bid for Hangeland. His proof? This comment by the Norwegian’s agent regarding the summer speculation: “There was interest – but nothing concrete.” A done deal it seems!
If he is to move, then the centre-back will line up against his future employers as Fulham face the Gunners on Saturday. Despite the coming-together of the two Fulham squads, Hodgson will, for now at least, continue with what he feels is his strongest XI. And he had better be right as the Gunners have often been at their free-scoring best this campaign. In contrast, the Whites have seemingly been far easier to break down in the Premier League up to now, but what more fitting game is there for Fulham to toughen up again than the fixture where they first started getting credit – their 1-0 defeat of Arsenal last term. The bad news is Andrey Arshavin and Theo Walcott could participate, but at least they are less dangerous than when fully match fit. The good news is Fulham return to the Cottage – a fortress last season and where most points will probably come from- they had a promising win there last time out.
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
Normal service resumed? – September 15
Second string given chance to shine – September 18
No-one fearful of Fulham, so time for Plan B – September 22
Rotatation, rotation and more rotation September 25