As all tickets for the home tie with Hamburg on April 29 sold out within 24 hours of going on sale to club members, it is a great feeling for all Fulham fans that they need not worry about relegation for two seasons running. And it is largely due to home form why that has happened.
Because relegation worries have now been eased for some time, Roy Hodgson may well make the most of his squad ahead of the much-anticipated Europa League semi-final on Thursday. With the visitors to Craven Cottage this Saturday being Mick McCarthy’s Wolves – who were fined for fielding a weakened side at Old Trafford earlier in the season – this fixture is the stuff of West Ham nightmares. Depending on the result, i.e. if Wolves win, David Gold’s lawyers will likely be pitching a tent in SW6 in anticipation of the next claim against Mohamed Al-Fayed’s charges. The fact of the matter is, two legs of football separate the Whites from a European final, and other teams’ desperation to survive will not stand in the way of that.
Whichever XI is selected, they will be tasked with pushing the club towards being the best of the rest. While Everton’s eighth position is arguably unreachable with just five games remaining, should the Whites finish ninth they would equal the second-highest ever top-flight finish whilst also being FA Cup quarter-finalists and Europa League (at the very least) semi-finalists. All that, combined with playing an average of one match almost every five games would eclipse even the season that saw the club qualify for Europe in the first place. Fulham have proved they belong in European competition and have shown that more than 60 games in a season is not as much of a problem as most experts predicted. Of course, taking all that into account, a good rest for some of the most regular performers is well deserved, and the Wolves game, sandwiched between a gruelling draw at Anfield and the first leg of the Europa League semi-final, is as good a match as any to give other players a chance to shine.
The return fixture earlier in the season was a classic Fulham away performance – classic in the sense of it being typical of the Whites’ travels. They were hassled, hurried and to a certain extent bullied by Wolves that day, but those things rarely happen when they play at the Cottage and Fulham will head into the game as favourites. Hodgson’s continental style of football – so effective thus far in the Europa League – works far better on home soil, as the slow, patient build-up play allows his troops to take control of games, whereas away they are too frequently outdone by the pace most home teams play at. This writer is not criticising the regime which has brought the best times in this club’s history, but as the season’s end draws ever closer, there will always be areas that will be looked at for improvement. Of course, Cottage fixtures can hardly get any better.
It is a shame Hodgson’s tactic is not nearly as effective away from home, or else Fulham could well be pushing the top six. Of all the teams below Liverpool, who sit in the final automatic European qualifying place, Fulham have won the most games at home – 10 – and have conceded just one more goal than any other team in the whole league. With a record like that, at least a point is always likely, and just a few more away wins would put the club in the league position their effort deserves. It is almost there – the defensive aspect, as last Sunday’s draw confirmed is effective, and the club are one of the lowest conceders away, too – but the cutting edge is lacking. Assuming Bobby Zamora will be rested, that cutting edge might also be found wanting at the weekend as David Elm has yet to prove an adequate replacement.
A player who could well find himself in contention is the likely Stefano Okaka. Unable to play in Europe, Okaka might only have five more games to play for the Whites if he returns to Rome after the season, so will be ready to cause McCarthy’s men problems if called upon. He scored after coming on in the Cottagers’ last home game against Wigan and the signs are he is not finished. The Italian could stay for another season yet, but for now he is in the ‘ready to prove himself’ category while Zamora et al have their eyes on the trip to Germany.