When Fulham fans took their first look at the fixture list for the 2010/11 season, in truth the Wolves fixture was the first they would have pointed out as an expected three points. A point in any away game, particularly at the always tricky Reebok Stadium is a bonus, a draw – home or away – against Manchester United would be gladly accepted by most and, despite Blackpool being the weakest team on paper in the league, the Cottagers’ away record combined with an excitable first home game in the Premier League for the Tangerines makes that a decent point too.
Fulham’s record at Craven Cottage is the polar opposite to that when visiting other teams. As such, Saturday’s fixture presents Mark Hughes with a very different challenge to the ones he faced during his new side’s largely tricky opening three games. Indeed to be undefeated – albeit without yet registering a win – is an achievement, and one that should the Whites pick up the three points against Mick McCarthy’s men will make for a very impressive start to the campaign. Against both United and Blackpool, Fulham showed they were capable of goals, and the weekend’s match is an opportunity to continue the pleasing performance in the attacking third. Of course, with the unlocking of the offensive door means the back line have to adapt to the system as well, and lapses such as John Pantsil’s two against Blackpool must be cut out in order for the same amount of goals to not go in at the other end.
On the whole the defence has impressed too, with few mistakes being made. David Stockdale has been a big part of that, but the knock he picked up against Blackpool is set to keep him on the sidelines for some time, which means Hughes is likely to have to call upon Mark Schwarzer. The Australian is, by all accounts, unhappy about being blocked a move to Arsenal, but at the same time it is refreshing for a smaller club to put its own needs before those of another team, which is exactly what Hughes has done. Whether he will regret that decision in time remains to be seen – even though Schwarzer has always come across as a model professional – but with only the two goalkeepers in the 25-man squad, an unhappy No 1 is better to have than just the one, relatively untested, stopper. The 37-year-old impressed during the international break, and the blocked transfer could well mean he is at the top of his game in order to prove himself – even if his intentions are to impress potential suitors.
An unfortunate absentee from international week was Bobby Zamora, who finally made his England debut before being forced to miss out on a competitive game due to injury. Fulham’s leading man will be another out to prove himself should he play against Wolves, which bodes well for home fans and Fabio Capello, but perhaps not for the visitors. A Zamora with a point to prove is an incredibly dangerous prospect for any defence. For Zamora at least, the platform is a decent one to impress, and although Fulham should win on paper, the reality is that in such games where they are favourites they can – and do frequently – fall short. McCarthy’s side took four points from the Whites last year, and just the season before now-relegated Hull City took all six, the win at Craven Cottage being their single victory in the entire second half of the season.
So while the prospect of goals is mouth watering, with Zamora, Moussa Dembele and Dickson Etuhu playing together fantastically well, the need to take what can be a very dangerous team (particularly when underestimated) seriously is evident. Hughes has a few selection choices to make – the decision whether to introduce Carlos Salcido, who again was impressive for Mexico in midweek, or stick with the Premier League experienced Stephen Kelly is just another. All tactical question marks regarding the Wolves game hang over the defence, and these are questions Hughes will have to answer correctly if his players are to send the Cottage faithful home happy – as they may expect to be in the build up to this game.
This fixture could go a long way to showing how well the manager can blend his inherited, ageing squad, with his new acquisitions into a system that benefits all. That is all while trying to wrestle a supposed want-away goalkeeper. It is set up intriguingly, to say the least.