Fulham will take a stroll down the road tomorrow to visit their big brother, armed with around 3000 travelling fans (12 times the number that travelled to Middlesbrough a couple of weeks ago). This fixture comes at an interesting time for both sides: Chelsea will be seeking to avoid injury and maybe pinch three points while they’re at it, with much bigger fish to fry on Wednesday evening, while Fulham come to the Bridge for their biggest game of the season hoping to boost their chances of finishing in 7th spot, and with it the illustrious prize of entering the Europa League’s qualifying round next season. Still, if their last visit to European football is anything to go by, when they rather brilliantly won the Intertoto Cup, they will stand a good chance of doing well in the competition, providing Roy Hodgson doesn’t panic at the possibility of playing a further nineteen games next term.
Anyway, that’s too far into the future to start getting worked about now – we could be European Champions by then. Let’s return to the present and the very local derby that awaits us come Saturday afternoon. Chelsea have no new injury doubts after Tuesday’s exhausting clash with Barcelona, but will probably rest key players, much like they did in their previous league game at West Ham. Essien, Ballack and Drogba can all expect a breather. Ashley Cole could well return to his left-back berth after Jose Bosingwa performed so admirably there in the Nou Camp. Salomon Kalou, Chelsea’s matchwinner at Upton Park and Nicolas Anelka, looking for his first league goal since February, could well take the place of their more esteemed colleagues. Petr Cech will hope to keep his fourth consecutive clean sheet, while skipper John Terry is set to make his 400th appearance for the club.
Walking down the Fulham Road to have a look at our dearest neighbours it looks, from the outside anyway, that their house is very much in order. Having escaped relegation so dramatically last season they look set to beat their highest ever finish (9th) in the Premier League this time around under the guidance of the superb Roy Hodgson. Quite possibly the best English manager around, the wily veteran of management (having been in charge of three national teams and managed in eight different countries) has stabilized what was very much a sinking ship when he joined the club after the disastrous reign of Lawrie Sanchez. Last season’s miraculous turnaround and stunning conclusion to the season, with the Whites winning four of their last five games including three away from home, has ensured that Hodgson will live long in Fulham’s folklore.
This season’s achievements thus far have been equally impressive. With a tight budget Hodgson has maximized his vast knowledge of the European game and bought wisely – the acquisition of the giant Norwegian Brede Hangeland last January has proved to be one of the signings of 2008. The signing of Mark Schwarzer on a free transfer has also been inspired, with many placing the Australian in their top three Premier League keepers. A new strike force in Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson have led the line expertly and have benefitted from the service provided by Clint Dempsey (Chelsea’s tormentor at the Cottage earlier in the season), Simon Davies and Danny Murphy. The latter has enjoyed a mercurial season pulling the strings from midfield. Yet it is Fulham’s solid defence which has drawn most of the plaudits, having conceded a miserly 28 goals all season, a rate bettered only by the top three. Hangeland is joined in the middle by a Premier League stalwart in Aaron Hughes and flanked by the capable Paul Konchesky and the revitalized John Paintsil. The back five, completed by Schwarzer, have produced seven shutouts in their past 12 away games, including credible 0-0 draws at Anfield, White Hart Lane and the Emirates. Fulham’s lack of injuries have played an important part in their success this year but the excellent man management of Hodgson must not be underestimated when analyzing the factors for their upturn in fortunes from last year’s near disastrous campaign.
Last season’s corresponding fixture marked Avram Grant’s first home game in charge of the club. By the time Fulham next travel to Stamford Bridge Chelsea will have got through three managers since then. Let’s presume a new manager is appointed by the 1st of July this year – from the 21st May 2008 to the 1st July 2009 four different people will have been in charge of the club. This only serves to make the potential achievements of this season all the more remarkable. Yet the cumulative years of those in charge at Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal add up to a remarkable 41 seasons. Without this level of continuity challenging for the title will always be made much harder than it could be. With the strength of our squad, though, the possibility of doing well in the Cups is always strong and this has proved to be the case again this season. With a Cup Final and a Champions League Semi-Final against Barça to look forward in the not too distant future tomorrow’s fixture will inevitably be placed on a list of lower priorities. But local pride is at stake, just as it was at Upton Park last week and will be at the Emirates next week, and we don’t want our nearest and dearest walking away from this fixture with much more than a programme and a sense of disappointment. So let’s ensure that we don’t go into Wednesday’s game on the back of a dodgy performance, instead starting what could be a quite sensational week with 3 points and a clean bill of health.