Stoke v Fulham, Premier League, January 5, 2010
Having both negotiated their way past lower league opposition in the FA Cup at the weekend, mid-table Stoke and Fulham face-off in the Premier League on Tuesday night with both sides aiming to begin 2010 by cementing their position in the top flight.
Fulham are definitely the form team ahead of the match at the Britannia stadium with the Cottagers having closed out the last decade with successes both on and off the pitch. Crucially, manager Roy Hodgson, whose stock appears to rise week on week leading to paper-talk that he could be the next England manager after Fabio Capello, committed his immediate future to the west Londoners by penning a new 12-month rolling contract.
Stability off the field has been mirrored by success on it, with Fulham having advanced into the last 32 of the Europa League after a tremendous victory away at Swiss powerhouse Basel. Fulham have also been formidable domestically in recent weeks, with the victory over Manchester United the highlight of a run of just one defeat in their last ten matches.
Bobby Zamora snatched most of the plaudits during Fulham’s fine finish to 2009. The striker, who was under pressure from his own supporters for not scoring enough earlier in the campaign, has hit a purple patch hitting the net six times in his last seven outings including the solitary strike against Swindon last weekend (see here).
Zamora’s taste for goals arrived at the perfect time for Fulham, as the Londoners have had to cope with the extended absence of forward Andrew Johnson for the past three months of the season with a long-term groin problem. The former Crystal Palace striker made a welcome return from injury at the weekend, and AJ will be in line for a starting place against Stoke. (Fulham are 10/1 to win both halves.)
Aside from their forward-line, much of the credit for Fulham’s success has come from some of their lessor lights punching above their weight. In particular, Zoltan Gera and Clint Dempsey have chipped in with goals and assists from midfield, while Chris Baird stability as his team’s holding midfielder remains one of the leagueâ€™s best kept secrets.
The Cottagers will be without highly-prized centre-half Brede Hangeland on Tuesday, the defender still recovering from a knee injury, which will see Saturday’s man-of-the-match Chris Smalling continue to understudy for the Norwegian alongside Aaron Hughes in the heart of the backline. John Pantsil is also unavailable having also picked up a bad knee injury, so Stephen Kelly and Paul Konchesky will get the nod in the full-back positions. (Fulham are 9/4 to keep a clean sheet.)
While life is relatively rosy for Fulham, the same cannot be said for Tony Pulis’ Stoke.
The biggest problem facing the Potters at the start of the new year will be the worrying lack of goals scored this season. James Beattie’s public fallout with the manager back at the start of December coincided with a dreadful lack of goals (only 15 in the league this season) from the red and whites, with Stoke chalking up a miserable run of three consecutive defeats and just two Premier League goals from their last six games in the top division. ( Stoke are 9/1 to win both halves.)
Stoke, though, did mange to see off non-league York in the FA Cup at the weekend, and it was Rory Delap who stole the headlines as his long throws again came to the fore. The Irishman’s trademark long-throws helped Stoke came back from an early Neil Barrett goal for the visitors, setting up an own-goal from a York defender for the equaliser and creating the second for striker Ricardo Fuller minutes later. Matthew Etherington curled in a free-kick for the third. (Match highlights here.)
Fulham will be ready for “throw-back” Delap though, and Stoke will know they have to cultivate their attacks if they are to unlock their upcoming opponents. Responsibility will fall on the shoulders of striker Tuncay, Dave Kitson and Mamady Sidibe to contribute more than their collective three strikes this season, while midfielders Liam Lawrence and Dean Whitehead continue to search for their first goals of the season.
The one major positive for Stoke though is the return of Ryan Shawcross in defence (Stoke are 11/5 to keep a clean sheet), with the Potters boasting the meanest backline in the bottom half of the league having conceded just 23 goals this season.
101predicts: Stoke 0 – Fulham 0 (17/2)
Full match odds here.