For once, Fulham’s cup exploits do not come as a hindrance. While the league remains the priority, the FA Cup tie against Accrington Stanley this weekend provides the opportunity for a first win for almost a month. The fans will feel the same and, unless they enjoy receiving apologies from Roy Hodgson in the post, will be looking for much more from their team.
The players will have to forget their previous trip in Lancashire just last weekend and use the game as one in which to boost their depleted morale. Of course, should the unthinkable happen, then the trip would have the opposite effect, but no-one really expects the home side to triumph on the day. Last season, it took two late goals to sink non-league Kettering, so Fulham will know as well as any side the danger such cup fixtures represent. After all, before the turn of the millennium, the side from Craven Cottage were FA Cup giant-killers themselves. From Stanley’s point of view, there has not been a better time all season to face the Whites, and the visitors must numb the early confidence from their hosts. Hodgson, as he usually does, will play the strongest side he has available to him on Saturday – but that says little considering the amount of injuries his side has. With both ever-present full-backs, plus Bobby Zamora and Clint Dempsey (with Dickson Etuhu in Angola) unavailable, the next month or two will test this squad to its limits. So for those players looking to get into the Premier League XI, such as Bjorn Helge Riise, Toni Kallio and Kagiso Dikgacoi, the cup tie represents a real opportunity to prove themselves. A result is one thing, but a return to confident, attractive and clinical football is what the away fans are looking for. Despite at times playing some good football at Ewood Park, there was no cutting edge and an obvious lack of assuredness. Even the previously unflappable Brede Hangeland has been looking less than composed when facing balls both in the air and on the ground. Confidence is a massively important aspect of football and a win – even an undesirable scrappy one – will go some way to repairing the players. While the question for every neutral and home supporter will be whether Accrington can pull off the scalp of the round, the 1200 travelling Whites will be looking at a few key areas for improvements that will help the league campaign.
Firstly, a clean sheet is a must have. Yes, the opposition are three divisions below Fulham, but shutting any team out, whatever level they play at, will breed confidence throughout the back five. Stanley will come out of the blocks quickly as every underdog does, and if the defence can hold strong it will stand them in good stead for yet another away game at Tottenham on Tuesday night. Perhaps most importantly, the cup tie will allow the replacement full-backs an extra game in which to become accustomed to their centre-backs, and hopefully will work as a unit to defend set-pieces – the recent defensive weakness. Secondly, going forward, Andy Johnson should be looking to grab at least one goal on Saturday. An injury-restricted season has meant the striker hasn’t hit the net in the league yet this campaign, but a confidence-boosting performance against Accrington should see that statistic change. Although he has looked lively in his appearances since his injury, he has not looked threatening, even missing a penalty in the last round against Swindon. If he can get in behind a few times, then he could make the difference, and Whites fans will certainly be looking for more from their most recent big-money signing.
Just as luck has avoided his side in recent weeks, Hodgson will be hoping the magic of the FA Cup will too but if, in the end, it is to be the League Two side’s name in the fifth-round hat, then expect him to be locked away in his office for a good few days. No, not sulking, but rather signing his name almost eight times more than he did after the Britannia defeat. He will be eager to stop any kind of defeat ritual being set.