Fulham’s chances of having a successful season in the absence of talisman Bobby Zamora were on a knife-edge after Andy Wilkinson’s frankly appalling challenge on Moussa Dembele at the end of Tuesday’s somewhat miserable away performance at Stoke City. Should the Whites lose the so-far impressive Dembele for a lengthy spell as well as England international Zamora, early-season predictions of a top-half finish will look wildly optimistic.
The club’s official statement announced that, while Dembele was lucky enough to avoid a fracture (which looked inevitable after the offence), there was ligament damage, which will make unofficial announcements of a two-week lay-off look incredibly ambitious. In truth, the two-month mark is a better estimation. The club have not set a timescale as yet, but it will come as bad news to Fulham fans who had to watch one of their best performers be subjected to a needless and mindless, and of course career-threatening, tackle. A red card would have been a lenient response from the referee, but as it stands Wilkinson will – if selected – play in Stoke’s next game, yet Fulham will be without the Belgian for quite some time.
The game was already lost, so perhaps Mark Hughes could have substituted his skilful forward as the game drew to a close, knowing the potential for injury is higher when such tackling is encouraged as good old-fashioned British grit at some venues around the country. Hughes will, of course, feel he should not have to protect his players from ‘over-enthusiasm’, but there was none coming from the referee so playing safe and withdrawing Dembele was an option that probably should have been taken. Disappointingly, the incident did tar a more impressive Stoke passing performance than they have become known for, but such incidents are always the danger, and it is the victims who are the ultimate losers.
The Whites are running out of forwards faster than Hughes is running out of patience with his managerial compatriots, and up front the Welshman’s squad is down to the bare bones. Without Zamora, the emphasis had been placed on Dembele to get the goals for Fulham, but now the burden must be shared between a few midfielders masquerading as strikers, a soon-to-return, once-excellent striker and an actual forward yet to score a goal for his club despite a magnitude of substitute appearances. The lack of a genuine outlet up top is a massive worry – Clint Dempsey, despite his excellent header last weekend, and Zoltan Gera, both play their best football behind Zamora, and as such are relatively untested as a striking pair. Andy Johnson, who will return to full training next week, is still weeks away from first-team action, and will need time to regain sharpness, and his namesake, Eddie, is completely unproven, but has shown glimpses of quality in his appearances so far this term. There is another striker, David Elm, available, however Hughes has yet to select him at all this season, suggesting little faith in the Swede.
Goals have been of the essence in the handful of league games so far – relatively speaking in comparison to Roy Hodgson’s tenure of course – but there is real danger of them drying up without Zamora and Dembele. Eddie Johnson, then, if selected has some pressure on his shoulders, but also a genuine chance at Fulham which he has yet to be given. With his natural pace, the American tends to sit on the shoulders of opposition defences – as reflected in his being caught offside frequently – yet has shown precious little composure in his limited time on the pitch since joining the club. He should not yet be labelled ‘not good enough’ for this league, and indeed he could be set for more playing time in order to prove his doubters wrong. That Hughes has brought him on several times in second-halves this season suggests he is to be given a chance to shine. All Whites fans will be hoping he can take it, because with the shaky-looking Mark Schwarzer conceding for fun at the other end, the goals dare not dry up.
With an almost-perfect home record against Saturday’s opponents, Everton, whomever is selected to lead the Fulham line can look forward to, hopefully, a game of football, rather than a fusion with the sport played with the oval ball as has been witnessed during the past three fixtures. A few matches without serious injury or blatant cheating – such as Blackburn Rovers’ goal – would make a refreshing change. A successful season is not yet out of the question, and indeed this side will continue fighting for each other until even the youth team are in hospital.