The best ticket in town on Saturday will be admission to a mouth-watering clash at Craven Cottage, where the high-flying Whites take on reigning champions Manchester City. There is no way this ends a tepid 0-0 draw. Let's start with the facts.
While Mancini's millionaires arrive in London unbeaten in the league, the champs are not firing on all cylinders. They will in fact be looking to reverse a poor run with their first win in five from all competitions. In the league they boast home wins over two lame outfits in Southampton and QPR, and neither game was a stroll, while drawing with Liverpool, Stoke and Arsenal. They carelessly gave up two late goals against Real at the Bernabeu and this week got turned over at home by Aston Villa (of all people) in the League Cup.
That competition throws up some curve balls for sure depending how committed managers are to putting out strong teams. But with their resources super-rich City can put two elevens on the park that would be the envy of many a club. Four goals against mid-week on home turf indicate where they are vulnerable right now. 14 goals conceded from the last seven games and no clean sheet since the penultimate game of last season at Newcastle. That smacks of instability within the ranks, muddled tactics, confusion and self-doubt. And with eight goals at home and none conceded, Fulham - the EPL's joint top scorers, are poised to take advantage.
Mancini has lost the plot somewhat. He attempts a poised urbanity in the tunnel after games, rarely raising his voice, wearing his schoolboy jumpers. Garrulous yet not saying much and non-smiling, there's no arm-waving histrionics from the Italian. It's a different matter on the touchline. Paul Lambert now added to a long list of managers Mancini has sparred with in the technical area. He then fired off a salvo against Ferguson post-match, another misjudgement that may come back to haunt him.
When Balotelli's agent comes out with a statement saying Mario has no problems not starting and is very happy with life at Man City, why do I get this image of the sullen, brooding striker cradling a howitzer in his lap staring at a big picture of Mancini tacked to the wall? City, the Reservoir Dogs of the Premier League
Mancini has also been bemoaning the last minute rush to sign up yet more booty in the transfer window. 'It unsettles the whole squad and there's no time to integrate the new players'. We know the system's not perfect, but how can you feel sympathy for this? Sir Alex always has his shopping planned out and done early. Spare a thought for the likes of us Roberto down below the salt, having our two best players ripped out of the team after two weeks of the season.
It's not easy to warm to Roberto, but I do admire his side and I was delighted to see them claim the title. Let's face it, they have some monumental talent in the ranks. A year ago Carlos Tevez declined to warm up from the subs bench in Munich. Mancini categorically stated he would never play under him again. Tevez fled the UK and went to the naughty corner for six months. He apologised, the two reconciled their differences, and 'Carlito' this season has been City's best player (3 goals to date). But the whole episode for my taste reveals feet of clay in both parties. It is perhaps symptomatic of the ethos predicated by so many massive egos under one roof. There's too much volatility at Eastlands for things to be healthy. Hot lava bubbles below the dressing-room floor. Inevitably, sooner or later, it finds its way into the cracks
When all is said and done Saturday's match-up is just twenty-two men, a ball and 25,700 fans. But only one side is settled and playing as a team. It's anybody's guess how City shape up. Aguero was rested for Villa and must surely return. Mancini no doubt will re-jig his vast pool of talent, while Jol's task is the simple one of picking the same eleven that won at Wigan. Fulham do like to keep injuries quiet, if they are all fit, expect no changes. Kacaniklic needs to get into the game more and I would hesitate to start Ruiz. Squad players are coming back to full fitness with our options increasing in midfield. Karagounis played an hour for the reserves this week and showed up well. I expect to see him on the bench.
For me personally, in light of City's current inability to post a lock-out, I would actually gamble on Petric to partner Berbatov, while being prepared to throw Hugo on as a fresh option. Rodallega I see as an impact player, whereas Petric gives you more of a return in cunning, link-up play and reading the game. He would certainly get more strikes in on Hart. I really can't wait to see how he pairs with Dimi - and let's face it after his double strike from day one he's not been given a real go.
I'm tempted to say Fulham to win 2-0 and keep pace with the leading pack. But nullifying the likes of Tevez, Yaya Toure, Aguero, Silva, Dzeko et al for 90 minutes is a big ask. Let's see if the 'new' Fulham are up to the challenge and can go one better than last season's stirring 2-2 draw. Another win Saturday and just imagine the party mood among fans on the way down to Southampton next week. 700 extra tickets added to our allocation! Both our reserves and youth team have done our opponents in the past week, so here's to the hat-trick. COYW!!!
PA PhotosMan City boss Roberto Mancini has a hatful of problems