Despite the Carling Cup’s reputation having been ripped to shreds by Premier League managers who see the competition as a pain rather than a prospect, the bottom line is the tournament represents a real chance for clubs that will never get close to the league or – ordinarily – a major European trophy to notch up some silverware. And Mark Hughes went a long way to confirming such ambitions with the XI he named on Thursday night against League Two side Port Vale.
As has been keenly pointed out by anyone who has had a chance to mention it, it was only Port Vale. That is true, but the uncertainty of cup competitions by their nature and the fact Vale put out the previously untouchable QPR in the preceding round, meant that Hughes’ selection was both a declaration of intent and a very wise decision against former Fulham favourite Micky Adams’ potentially dangerous side. Just three changes were made from the side that was so impressive against Manchester United, and all three – who each have very different points to prove – were outstanding in the 6-0 win.
Zoltan Gera was involved with everything that happened. With two goals and three assists his performance was a real statement of intent. He has been heavily linked with moves away from the club, and his so-far infrequent use by Hughes has suggested his playing time for Fulham might be limited this year. On Thursday, however, he was exceptional – as he usually is when he pulls on the shirt. Igniting immediately his link with Bobby Zamora that was seen so frequently last season, he was once again the perfect foil for the target man. Excellent in the air as usual – as proved by his opening goal – and intelligent on the ground, the Hungarian also showed strength and commitment throughout the game, tracking back throughout and never stopping running. It was vintage Gera, against weaker than usual opposition, yes, but he can only perform against what is put in front of him. And perform he did.
From one player who has made a name for himself at the club, to another who has yet to prove himself, Matthew Briggs filled in at left-back for Paul Konchesky. With the latter being linked with a reunion with Roy Hodgson at Liverpool, Hughes can be forgiven for weighing up his options in that spot. Briggs, 18, is young for regular Premier League selection, but has vast experience at youth level – including the European U-19 Championship and U-20 World Cup – and certainly showed he has the potential to make the grade. In truth, he was hardly tested in the defensive side of his game after a few early slip-ups, but showed plenty of promise in the other direction. He set up Gera’s opener with a teasing cross, and his performance will only help him improve. If indeed Konchesky does end up leaving, Hughes will undoubtedly look to bring in a replacement, but Briggs will, on the evidence of his full debut, be willing and able to step in when required.
Moussa Dembele, too, made his full debut against Port Vale, although he had far less time to wait than the three years between Briggs’ debut and his first start. And Dembele’s job was to convince the Whites’ new boss that he is worthy of starting every game. A different player than Gera, relying on pace and trickery more often than the Hungarian, he too was very impressive indeed. His goal was excellently taken, cutting inside and slotting in off the post, and early indications are good. Perhaps, at this time, lacking the strength that the Premier League demands, Dembele will certainly bring a different angle to Fulham’s play. Even if at first he is mainly an option of the bench, Hughes’ early willingness to get him involved shows that changing things, and having different players rather than like-for-like replacements is very much an aspect of the manager’s style.
Another, if the midweek game proves anything, is that he takes any opportunity for success seriously indeed. Without European football this season, Fulham fans would be disappointed if their team does not make a run at one, or both, of the cups this term With tougher tests to come, the early decision to bed in a strong team in the tournament could pay dividends should Fulham make the closing stages.