Non-footballing summers are always the most painful times for football fans across the country. Without the comforting bookends of weekend fixtures, the weeks blur into one very long, very dark tunnel, with the light at its end seeming very far away. But thankfully we’ve all survived the summer tedium of rehashed and baseless transfer links, pre-season ‘tournaments’ on the other side of the planet against teams with names seriously deficient in vowels and cricket; the first day of the new Premier League season is almost here.
Remarkably, Fulham are at home on the opening day for the first time since 2005; Premier League officials are still frantically working to find the fault in the fixture computer which stopped it from assigning Chelsea the usual comfortable home tie against a newly promoted team (instead giving them a tricky test away to Stoke), but rest assured they will have remedied the error for next season. So tomorrow will be a rare opportunity to savour the comfortably naive optimism that the opening day brings whilst trotting through Bishop’s Park, with Aston Villa the visitors. It is a fixture that often produces an entertaining game of football, with two teams that look to play attractive football and win games. One (relatively) recent fixture that particularly sticks in the memory was the thrilling 3-3 draw in December 2005; three times Fulham led and three times Villa drew level, with the game’s highlight being a magnificent looping header from Brian McBride. There was the 3-1 win under Roy Hodgson in 2009 with two goals from Diomansy Kamara, and in last season’s encounter Villa dominated only to be robbed of victory at the very death by a towering Brede Hangeland header in a 1-1 draw.
Tomorrow’s game is something of a milestone for both clubs, as both teams take to the field in domestic competition for the first time under their new managers. Martin Jol’s appointment was discussed in some depth in last Sunday’s season preview and so doesn’t really need to be covered in too much detail here, but Alex McLeish’s arrival at Villa was one of the shocks of the summer for a number of reasons. Firstly and perhaps most pertinently is the fact that he was taken from Villa’s arch-rivals, recently relegated Birmingham City. The rivalry isn’t usually considered one of Britain’s most hateful, but the anger and spite incited by McLeish’s choice to walk the rarely-trodden route to Villa Park shows that strong emotions are buried deep. Secondly, Villa fans were particularly underwhelmed at the calibre of the appointment; McLeish’s CV at Birmingham contains a Carling Cup, two relegations, and a reputation for playing solid if depressingly turgid football, precipitating a remarkable protest outside the gates of Villa Park as rumours of his appointment gradually congealed into reality. It is clear that if McLeish’s reign at Villa is to be a success then he is going to have to get off to a good start; he can be certain that fans aren’t going to remain patient for very long in the face of poor results.
This all adds an extra level of intrigue to tomorrow’s game, as well as a pinch of the unknown. The biggest question mark in terms of Fulham’s team selection is who will play in defence; will it be Hughes or Baird at right back, the outcome of which will determine whether or not the impressive Senderos will be deployed alongside Hangeland in defence. The safest solution seems to be to stick with the back four that served the Whites so well last season, with Baird at right back and Hughes continuing his formidable partnership with Hangeland at the heart of the backline. However, Jol seems to be a big Senderos fan given the number of starts he has given him in pre-season, and the big Swiss hasn’t put a foot wrong so far in Fulham colours. What is surprising and in fact slightly baffling is that he has preferred to start Hughes at right back, a position in which he looks decidedly uncomfortable and which brings his limited distribution to the fore, over Baird, who has developed into an accomplished performer and an integral part of the back four over the past 12 months. In fact, given the lack of pre-season time that Baird has been given, it would be somewhat astonishing if Jol performs a u-turn now and plays him at right back, and would raise questions about why he persisted with testing out Hughes at right back in so many games this summer. So whilst I would prefer to see Baird there, I expect to see Hughes at right back with Hangeland and Senderos in the centre and Riise at left back.
In midfield, Jol will have to decide whether to partner Danny Murphy with Steve Sidwell or Dickson Etuhu; Sidwell is the more exciting option but Jol may well favour Etuhu’s power against a Villa side that is likely play three in the centre of midfield. Duff will start on the right, whilst I expect Dempsey to start on the left, with Dembele probably not yet up to full match fitness having missed a lot of pre-season through injury. Up front will be Zamora and Johnson, who have both looked lively in pre-season and will hope to establish a partnership that has always had promise but been held back over the past couple of seasons with the injuries the pair have suffered. New signings Gecov and Kasami will be on the bench; depending on how the match is going, I hope we are given another chance to see Kasami in action towards the end of the game to see if he can build on his promising cameo against Split.
As for Villa’s line up, it seems that Darren Bent has been passed fit to play and so naturally he would be expected to start; Hangeland and Hughes have actually done a good job of keeping him quiet over the years whenever we have faced his teams, but his goalscoring prowess is undoubted and so will have to be watched closely on Saturday. Their major outfield summer signing was Charles N’Zogbia, who has the pace and the ability to cause us problems on either flank (particularly if coming up against an out of position Aaron Hughes) and is the player I would be most worried about going into the game. Their midfield will probably be a central three with Makoun and Petrov providing a defensive base with Stephen Ireland, who has been given another chance at Villa by McLeish, apparently likely to start. He will push high up the pitch at every opportunity and can be an effective player if his mind is in the game and will need to be shackled by our midfield. When assessing Villa’s side I can’t help but feel that their defence is vulnerable; whilst Dunne and Collins are powerful in the air they aren’t especially mobile, and whilst AJ doesn’t have blistering pace anymore he is always making runs in, behind and around defenders, moving them around and opening up space for others, exactly what Dunne and Collins will not want. Coupled with Zamora’s power and the tendency for Duff and Dempsey to cut in from the flanks and arrive in central positions, the centre of their defence is an area that can be exploited. Also in goal for Villa is Shay Given, a renowned shot stopper but quite small for a goalkeeper; this, coupled with the fact that he has spent the past year slowly rusting on Man City’s bench, mean that it will be interesting to see how he deals with the first few crosses and corners of the game.
The first fixture of the season is always the hardest to predict simply because there is no form to go on. However, in my (admittedly slightly biased) view I believe that Fulham have the players to take advantage of Villa’s weaknesses, which, coupled with the backing of the home crowd and the extra fitness gained from having already played competitive fixtures, will see them to an entertaining 2-1 win.