René Meulensteen might be encouraged by the knowledge that his Fulham side seem capable of replicating their home form on the road this season. However I’m sure he’d rather that weren’t the case. His side have only kept three clean sheets all season long and despite scoring in all eleven of their home games they’ve only registered in four of their ten away fixtures. Two of the teams that Fulham have scored against on the road, Crystal Palace and Sunderland, occupy 20th and 19th place in the league respectively.
Fulham’s two best strikers have scored just one more goal between them than former Arsenal trainee Steve Sidwell whose five goals in the league make him Fulham’s top scorer. Dimitar Berbatov, winner of the Premier League Golden Boot for 2010-2011 and Darren Bent whose service has commanded cumulative transfer fees in excess of £50 million have notched just 6 goals between them.
Another of the sides to have conceded at home against Fulham are Norwich, whose defence is the joint second most vulnerable in the league. Fulham themselves boast the record for the league’s worst defence.
Their club captain and best defender Brede Hangeland, who hadn’t featured since late October due to a back injury until returning in his side’s 3-0 FA Cup victory over Norwich on Tuesday, will be in line to make his first Premier League start of the calendar year at the Emirates on Saturday. His absence has no doubt been a huge factor in Fulham’s defensive misery and consequently the sacking of Martin Jol at the beginning of December.
Additionally, summer signings Fernando Amorebieta, Scott Parker and Maarten Stekelenburg haven’t added the protection that they would have been expected to bring to the club. Amorebieta, signed from Athletic Bilbao is still very much finding his feet in English football and will be pleased to partner Hangeland for only the seventh time in all competitions since his arrival. Scott Parker, now 33, makes up for in determination what his age has been taking away from his game for the past few years now though he’s certainly not the presence he was in his West Ham days and his early Tottenham career. The goalie situation is a peculiar one. With a World Cup final appearance in South Africa on his résumé, Fulham fans will hope that the keeper brought in from AS Roma can go on to imitate the last former Ajax man that the club signed from Serie A, Edwin van der Sar. So far since moving to London and similarly during last season in Italy’s capital city the giant Dutchman Stekelenburg has failed to impress.
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The opposition have recently added to their backroom staff too. Alan Curbishley (technical director) and Ray Wilkins (head coach) have been brought in to assist Meulensteen. Fulham fans will be optimistic that the newly appointed and vastly experienced Premier League veteran coaches can help channel the talents of the players into results, especially in the wake of their recent comprehensive victory over Norwich in the third round of the FA Cup.
The absence of Ramsey, Arteta and possibly Rosický will deprive Arsenal’s midfield of a certain drive that would be useful in any game. The long-term loss of Theo Walcott who recently underwent successful surgery on his injured knee and a reluctance to play Lukas Podolski further lessens the team’s attacking resources. Additionally, Giroud will have a tough time battling against Fulham’s physically combative and newly reformed first choice centre back pairing of returning captain Hangeland and the Venezuelan international Amorebieta. Hence the outcome of the match will depend largely on the attacking performances of the likes of Cazorla, Özil and Wilshere who may also take no part after missing training on Friday.
Gnabry, who is likely to start again and the Ox who should feature if not from the start then surely from the bench are also charged with the task of providing the game’s breakthrough. This expectation from the fans and manager is new for Gnabry and will be something that Chamberlain must familiarise himself with once more following his return from injury.
The meeting between the sides on Matchday two was the first sign of the potential that this season’s Arsenal have so far fulfilled. Cazorla was imperious that day and despite tailing off in his performance level after injury earlier in the campaign he seems a player reinvigorated since opening the scoring in the FA Cup victory over bitter rivals Spurs.
Another notable standout from the 3-1 win at Craven Cottage was Giroud who lead the line admirably but it was his link-up play rather than his finishing that impressed. Although not prolific Giroud takes up good positions and the vast array of talent behind him means that he’s rarely short of service. Scoring against Newcastle and Aston Villa marks a mini-revival in front of goal for the Frenchman whose conversion rate is generally dependent on confidence.
Whilst it’s never as simple as this, Arsenal are in form, first in the Premier League and playing at home against the division’s worst defence. Injuries prevent us from fielding our strongest side but those who will play are collectively more than capable of turning over Fulham. An early goal to settle any anxiety would be ideal. There is a danger in the fans beginning to believe that this will be the season in which we end our near 9 year wait for silverware. Namely, that every game is considered a must-win.
The pace at the top of the table is unrelenting and it is true that any dropped points could ultimately be costly but the players already know this and having the crowd on their backs won’t help at all. That’s not to say that this has been happening but it’s the last thing we need. A Premier League trophy would be huge for the supporters and they can indeed play a part in bringing silverware to the Emirates; in the same way that the team must be patient so too must the fans.
Still, a win should be on the cards in the middle of a cluster of easier fixtures leading up to games against Liverpool, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and an FA Cup Fifth Round tie should we beat Covenry.
Written by Keitel Frankle