Before the 2009/10 season kicked off most Fulham fans would have gladly taken a top-half Premier League spot, an FA Cup quarter-final and progression from the Europa League group stage.
Half way through February the above is exactly how the season has panned out. And there is a real chance for further progression on all three fronts. Players are returning to both fitness and form just in time for a push for the European places in the league – with Birmingham, slightly above the Whites in the league, hitting a slump just in time for the weekend’s clash at Craven Cottage. The FA Cup quarter-final draw provided another home tie and, although it will be against top-flight opposition, a genuine opportunity for a last-four spot. And this Thursday sees Europa League holders Shakhtar Donetsk arrive in town for what must be a solid home win if the Cottagers are to have a chance of reaching the latter stages of the tournament. Undoubtedly, the visit of the Ukrainian side is the toughest tie of recent weeks, but games are starting to come thick and fast so Roy Hodgson will have to decide whether to stick with his strongest possible side to have the best chance of taking a solid lead to Eastern Europe, or whether to rotate (as much as the still-thin squad will allow) his line-up with his priorities in mind.
Just has he did throughout the group phase, Hodgson will most likely try to rest as many league players as he can. This would mean drafting Stefano Okaka, who finally opened his Fulham account against Notts County at the weekend, into the starting XI – most likely to replace Bobby Zamora, who is seen by his manager as the Whites’ star striker – were he not cup tied. The Italian, Okaka, has already featured in two of Fulham’s European games this season, playing against his current employers for parent club Roma in both group games. Having scored a good header in Rome, he would certainly cause problems for the Donetsk defence. Of course, so limited are Hodgson’s rotation options that there have been several fringe players masquerading as first-teamers in recent weeks, and thus there are positions on the pitch where those playing need all the football they can get, rather than be rested. One such position is right-back. Even before John Pantsil’s injury, Stephen Kelly was the regular for European games, and he performed adequately, until he was called upon in the league. Since the Ghanaian has been out, Kelly has vied with Chris Baird to play on the right, but neither has proven himself to be a comfortable replacement. Baird has had the nod in his unfamiliar position in recent league and FA Cup fixtures, although he was skinned a few too many times by the League Two opposition to make the role his own, and so rather than Hodgson deciding which man to rest, he will instead be trying to choose which one will cope better with the Shakhtar left.
At least the midfield competition is starting to heat up. Since he recovered from his knock Danny Murphy has been present in every game, what with his back-up, Jonathan Greening, being forced to cover the weak left flank. But Simon Davies is now back – finally getting through full games, and even scoring – and Zoltan Gera is close to a return, meaning the wings have enough cover for Greening to be called upon in the middle should Murphy’s 32-year-old legs become tired. The inclusion of Murphy will depend on whether Hodgson sees the Europa League as second or third priority. If it is third choice, then his captain will likely be rested, or possibly taken off with 20 or more minutes to spare as he was at the weekend, even if the result is not certain by that time.
Whether Hodgson picks the same team again or a freshened-up XI, whoever is on the field needs to be at their best in the toughest home fixture for some time. There is no saying whether Pantsil, Paul Konchesky, Clint Dempsey or Andy Johnson would have been selected on Thursday if fit, such has been the manager’s selection policy, but his second-string progressed well from a difficult group and they will have his faith against Donetsk. A good win and this already successful season could become one that every Fulham fan hoped for last summer.