So the European Tour begins and in Group E, Fulham fans can look forward to visiting some fantastic cities. What better time to take your partner to the likes of Rome, Basel and, in this instance, Sofia, whilst watching Fulham play football at the same time? Of course, if you would rather watch the Whites’ first team, then it appears you had better avoid Europa League away fixtures, as Roy Hodgson lined up a reserve side to face CSKA last night. Only two of the XI that kicked-off against Everton started in Bulgaria, and one of those – David Stockdale – is a reserve himself. Some may not be happy with this, but this writer instead thinks if Fulham are to continue being successful in the league, then to play a second-string in Europe is astute management by Hodgson, who recognises the same players simply cannot play in what is potentially an extra 22 fixtures.
It was the same, obvious, 4-4-2 system, with the only difference being the cogs within it. Again, this is wise if injuries mean any of last night’s players have to step-up to play with the recognised starters because, as has often been the case, the familiar XI works better in Hodgson’s preferred system. The more time Chris Baird, Steven Kelly and the like have on the pitch, the smoother the transition will be when they are called upon, time on the pitch is exactly what the manager is intending for his second-string: “We made our mind up early on that if we are to do anything in this competition we’ll have to use as many players as UEFA allow us to. I think that now I can continue with this policy in the future.” As it was, the untested Fulham side fared as you might expect from a group of players unused to each other’s company on the pitch. The performance was a far cry from the second 45 against Everton, but good enough to earn a hard-fought away draw which, in any European competition, has to go down as a good result. Yes, the same team that started on Sunday would probably have taken all three points, but would that have been worthwhile if they then get beaten by Wolves at the weekend? This writer thinks not.
Last season, the reserve side was exactly that – players who would only have a sniff if they caught the flu, but now Hodgson can rest his primary team and call on genuine first XI hopefuls. Players who, if they impress, have a realistic chance of forcing their way into the managers plans. Some are more likely to than others, of course. Diomansy Kamara who, if reports are to be believed, was recently denied a loan move to Newcastle and Baird were the pick of the bunch, and it would have made satisfying viewing for the Cottage faithful that they have a solid replacement in defence, the area which looks to have the least depth. The Northern Irishman has been much-maligned in the past but, to his credit, he has stuck to the task of improving, and has done exactly that.
Less impressive were Bjorn-Helge Riise and Chris Smalling with both players, on this display at least, looking to be far off Premier League standard, but at least they were not found out in a domestic game. Those two players, along with (perhaps inevitably) Zoltan Gera and most of the first half, were the only real negatives in the match. Other points that were proven in Bulgaria were Erik Nevland is indeed only effective as an impact-substitute, and Jonathan Greening still does not look like a player worthy of weeks of headhunting. Then again who thought a Fulham second-string was capable of any kind of result? So this writer is not about to question the manager’s judgement. Shockingly, expect all but one of last night’s team to start against Wolves on Sunday as the exciting new rotation system works its magic. The team will revert to the familiar faces – the ‘League Team’ as perhaps it should now be known? Dare it be said that Fulham now has two capable teams within its squad? One, however, is considerably stronger than the other, and that is the one that will play the majority of league fixtures. Hodgson has made it clear with his team selection where his priorities lie this season.
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