Premiership action returns tonight with what in previous seasons, would have been the perfect antidote to Saturdays defeat at Bolton. The annual visit to Craven Cottage has always been a welcome away trip. Since their promotion to the Premiership, Fulham have always been most hospitable to Arsenal, rather obligingly surrendering maximum points on each of our five visits there. Despite the performance on Saturday, I would still expect three points here. Fulham will try to play football on the deck rather than the physical side of the game that mentally punished Arsenal. The willingness to do that will see gaps appear in the home defence which Henry and van Persie on their respective returns to the side ought to be able to exploit. In addition to that, they have lost Pearce from the heart of their defence, crucial experience that they will struggle to replace.
If we are trying to look for positives going into the match in respect of opponents form, there are plenty of good indicators for Arsenal:
- Fulham have the joint worst frontline at home (5 goals in 7 games) combined with the second worst defence
- Fulham have conceded the first goal in nine Premiership games, worse than Arsenal’s
- Fulham have yet to score in the opening quarter of a match this season
- All three of the scorers in last season’s 4 – 0 win are likely to play all or some part in the match for Arsenal
The team I would start with tomorrow is not much different from Saturday, despite that result. Rosicky is returning from a hamstring injury so I would only put him on the bench, protecting him for the match on Saturday against Tottenham. My line-up would be:
Lehmann; Eboue, Toure, Djourou, Clichy; Walcott, Fabregas, Gilberto, Hleb, van Persie; Henry
with a subs bench of Almunia, Senderos, Hoyte, Rosicky, Adebayour, Walcott, Aliadiere
The replacement of Senderos with Djourou seems on the face of it a bit harsh but given Fulham do not have a traditional target man, it would appear that Djourou has better attributes to deal with the pace of their forward line. Everyone but me was probably correct in their assessment of Ljungberg on Saturday and personally, based on that display I would be reluctant to pick him again unless there were severe injury problems (the observant amongst you will note that I still cannot admit that I was w, wr, wro…God I can’t even write it now). Hleb meanwhile should be saved for Saturday but it seems Baptista has that honour. Walcott seems perfectly suited for Fulham. The pitch at Craven Cottage is normally good, they will give him space to run into. The only reticence I would have is that with he and van Persie on the flanks, there could be a lack of defensive cover when Eboue and Clichy abandon their posts and go charging forwards. Baptista meanwhile should have started if he was to become a regular. However, his exertions at Bolton must have really been incredible for he is being rested. How anyone is to be able to pass judgement on his suitability for the Premiership is beyond me? This game, whilst not a gentle runout, could have been a kickstart for him. Once he scores his first Premiership goal, I think he will score many more. Against a porous defence, he should have been able to hit the back of the net but it is not to be.
And yet the way this season has gone, there is a danger that Fulham could rain on our parade. With only one win in their last six Premiership matches, they appear ripe for the taking but there are uncomfortable parallels there with Bolton and West Ham, both of whom were in poor form prior to meeting Arsenal. How wrong the bullishness was in those instances.
Even so, I would expect Arsenal to win; probably with a comfortable two or more goal margin.
As an aside and as part of the run-up to the Tiny Tots visit on Saturday, ESPN Classic (Channel 442 on Sky) is running a week of North London derbies which is worth setting the Sky+ box for. Why? Well, a quick glance at the list indicates that they are all Arsenal victories….including the infamous ‘5 – 0 at The Lane’.