Uninspiring, unattractive, uncomfortable – three words that sum up Fulham’s FA Cup trip to the uneven surface of the Crown Ground. In fairness to Accrington Stanley, they played a perfect 60 minutes of football. Before Damien Duff’s goal on 61 minutes the hosts were far better, and but for Darran Kemspon’s red card just before half-time, might well have provided the fairytale this year’s cup deserves.
The performances of the majority – especially Mark Schwarzer, Brede Hangeland, Chris Baird and Danny Murphy – can be forgotten, but just enough in White played acceptably for this game not to be a complete write-off. It might not have provided the much-needed injection of confidence ahead of tonight’s trip to White Hart Lane, but Bjorn Helge Riise and David Elm – when he came off the bench – have at least proved there are still options within Roy Hodgson’s limited squad. Erik Nevland and Zoltan Gera did well enough up front – they each scored a goal – to suggest they are currently the best options in that area, but with the injury to Clint Dempsey, and Gera being shifted up to partner Nevland, there is an opportunity for Riise to stake him claim for a regular spot. He has looked promising in his handful of Europa League appearances so far, and on Sunday – ignoring the level of opposition for a moment – he continued to impress. The cross he provided for his countryman, Nevland, along with his constant running, showed he has the ability to start games in the Premier League.
Even before the sending off, when Stanley were dominating, Riise – and to a certain extent, Duff – looked the most likely to make something happen for the away team, and Fulham fans will feel confident if he is called upon against Tottenham. Dempsey and Duff on the flanks are the goal-scoring type of wingers – they will cut inside, take on a man and go for goal the majority of the time. It is a role that they do admirably, but the Norwegian provides a more traditional wide-midfield role. He looks for quick one-twos with the central midfielders in order to get in behind the full-backs before attempting the cross. Such crossing ability is not usually on show from the regular wingers, as they are mostly on their wrong foot if behind the full-backs, so Riise could prove a good option in Hodgson’s attempt to stop the away rot. Not that Dempsey and Duff were underperforming, but an intelligent crosser might provide Nevland with a few chances to display his finishing talent and make the most of his vast frame.
Rumours are abound that Bobby Zamora may return to action a full month ahead of schedule, as he has reportedly recovered from his collarbone injury. Zamora could make the bench tonight, which is unfortunate for Elm, who impressed in his 25-minute cameo against the League Two outfit. Although, again, the level of opposition was not on a par with the norm, what the Whites faithful saw of Elm was similar to what they became used to seeing from Zamora before he was clattered against Stoke. A giant of a man, he possesses a surprisingly good touch and provided a physical presence which was lacking throughout the first half. He won headers, he muscled defenders off the ball and drifted into the channels to receive it. He did balloon the one shot he had, but he had shown enough prior to that to also suggest he could fill Zamora’s boots in the short-term.
Although a full-strength Fulham side struggling against fourth-tier opposition suggests yet more difficulty against Spurs, the fact that Harry Redknapp’s side have a level pitch and do not press and bully as much as other home Premier League sides, means the Whites can finally think about playing their regular game once more. It is not quite back home to the Cottage, but north London is closer than the north of England – a place Fulham will hope they never have to return. Bolton on February 6, however, is much sooner than never. If Zamora does not fully recover in time for tonight’s game, then expect the line-up to be very much the same as on Sunday.It will certainly not be comfortable, but a return to attractive football could provide the inspiration the Whites so desperately need.