At long last the gods of luck have been distracted and the Whites are beginning to get just a little of their attention. Enough interest to provide four points from two somewhat undeserving performances, that is, yet they still refuse to allow Roy Hodgson’s injury list any respite.
Kagisho Dikgacoi is possibly the most patient man in west London. He waited the best part of a calendar year to join the club after Work Permit appeals and problems persisted. He waited until his new manager thought he was fully match fit before he made his debut. He waited – with newspaper interviews claiming his intent – for injuries or suspensions to allow him to make his first start, so he could stamp his authority on the side. Now, after sitting through all that, he faces five to six weeks on the sidelines due to an injury picked up at the Reebok on Saturday. It seems someone does not want him to play for the host nation in the World Cup this summer, despite him showing what he is capable in the 55 minutes he did manage at the weekend. In yet another below-par team performance, Dikgacoi was the best outfield player in his minutes on the pitch. He mopped up well in front of the over-active defence and kept things ticking over tidily. Although Chris Baird has become a completely new player in the holding midfield role, Dikgacoi – a natural in the position – helps the side going forward more than his Northern Irish counterpart. Baird’s versatility helps him perform where needed, but Dikgacoi offers enough more that, if not for his injury, he would be fighting with Dickson Etuhu for the slot permanently. So, for Hodgson, instead of having a natural holding midfielder available to ease his injury woes, he will have to make do with a utility man for a while longer.
Despite luck not favouring Hodgson in terms of injuries this year, the new month has seen a more solid defence creating their own. The fortune at the weekend was having a referee who appears to know the rulebook, which clearly states that no pushing or pulling – or wrestling, Zat Knight – can go on in the penalty box. Some officials will ignore Bolton’s sparring, but others, Mark Clattenburg included, are intent on stamping out unfair play, which was emphasised by his handing out of six yellow cards to Owen Coyle’s side. Although the referee claimed he disallowed the hosts’ last-minute winner due to the push by Kevin Davies on Brede Hangeland (which was somewhat fortunate), other incidents in the box from the Bolton players make the decision a good one. With that verdict came Fulham’s second clean sheet in as many games, a statistic that will please their manager, who had previously seen his side concede 11 goals in just five games. Fans will be pleased, too, but they will also be looking for more potency going forward, as those same games provided just three goals, with a further one strike arriving this month, to make the total four in seven.
Top-scorer Bobby Zamora should return to the starting XI against Burnley tonight, which should make the Whites far more of a threat going forward, but otherwise the manager has limited options in the attacking department. Against Bolton David Elm got his first start, and despite him being alongside a more frequently seen face in Erik Nevland, even he is used far more often off the bench than in the starting line-up. The return of Zamora will probably see Elm return to the bench, but with Hodgson’s preferred trio of partners for the big man, Andy Johnson, Clint Dempsey and Zoltan Gera, all out, Nevland – who is a super-sub by trade – will most likely continue. Coming on in the second halves of games, the Norwegian would be fancied to score against any opponents, but when on the pitch from kick-off his man threats, surprise, intelligent running and exquisite finishing are somewhat wasted. That said, a home tie against Burnley, a side with an even worse away record than Fulham, is as good an opportunity as any for the struggling forwards to rediscover their goalscoring touch.
It is likely to be another scrappy, hard-fought contest tonight, but the Burnley fixture offers a real chance for the sturdy defence to gain even more confidence and the limp attack to find some of their own.