It was never really in doubt. Despite huffing and puffing almost as much as their excellent support, the Swindon players could not blow the Cottage down and upset giant killers-come-giants Fulham on FA Cup weekend.
A big point of interest for that tie was how Chris Smalling would recover from the trip to Stamford Bridge, it was a perfect response. The 20-year-old was a huge part of the defence which left Mark Schwarzer more or less untroubled – he could have done no more. Up against a combative and strong League 1 outfit, a lesser player might have become intimidated, however Smalling proved yet again why he is regarded so highly by the club and England Under-21 manager, Stuart Pearce. His next test – should the player he has replaced, Brede Hangeland, not recover – will be tonight’s likely aerial bombardment at Stoke. It is another game where he will need to be huge, and any error when dealing with Rory Delap’s throw-ins could well be punished. Fulham fans will most likely be hoping Hangeland gets the nod, as he single-handedly shut out the Stoke threat on both occasions last season.
The 0-0 draw at the Britannia last term was instantly forgettable, but the last thing that is now expected of the side from SW6 is for them not to score, what with Bobby Zamora’s new-found clinical touch. Despite only one point from the last two league games Fulham are still a team on form, so this writer feels Roy Hodgson has a difficult decision as to how to reintegrate the now-fit Andy Johnson into the team. Throwing him straight into the starting XI has the potential to upset the efficient machine, but Stoke are still an ideal team for a player to get on the shoulder of – with pace being a key attribute against a largely sluggish Potters defence. However, the inclusion of Andrew Johnson would be harsh on Zoltan Gera, who would be replaced, as the Hungarian has been a different player, used in the hole off Zamora. His goal against Chelsea will probably be enough to see him start again over Johnson – Hodgson is not a man to change things unnecessarily.
Whoever is chosen alongside him, Zamora will once again be the focus of the attack, with Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth likely to prove worthy adversaries. The last time the transfer window was open, Zamora was looking like being shipped to Hull in what then seemed like an easy £5m for Fulham. Such has been his turnaround this year, Whites fans would be looking for at least double that figure this January or, preferably, for the ex-Hammer to stay. Hodgson has insisted his star striker is going nowhere, and no fan will be unhappy at that news. The Cottagers boss has in fact been surprisingly vocal about his transfer interests so far this winter, as opposed to his usual stance which is to speak of nothing until a deal is finalised.
He appears to be moving efficiently, too. Before Smalling’s promising start to his career, the central-defensive area looked to be the weak spot in the Fulham squad, but it seems like the most vital area in which to add cover is now Zamora’s – there is not another player in the team who can play his role, so heaven forbid if he became injured. The man who looks likely to provide that essential cover in the target man role is Roma’s Stefano Okaka – who scored against the Whites in the unlucky defeat in Rome. Just a few days into the transfer window, Hodgson has all but wrapped up Okaka’s loan signature, and he will undoubtedly be thinking about a permanent move should the youngster impress. It is pleasing to see Hodgson looking to bring in youth, as the current squad is far from young, and low-risk loans appear to be the transfers of choice for the manager in January. In 2009, he brought in Derby’s Giles Barnes in a similar deal, but he failed to make a league appearance and drifted back to the Championship. In Okaka, Fulham could have a player who might one day play Zamora’s role just as effectively, however, Hodgson will have to use him sparingly if Roma are not to change their mind.
A strong transfer window with similar deals to strengthen what is already an efficient squad will – Whites fans will hope – see the club challenge once again for a European spot and, who knows, perhaps even an FA Cup run.