Fulham face Premiership debutants

Posted by Phil Mison

Richard Heathcote/Getty ImagesAfter toppling Everton midweek in cup play, Darren Bent and David Stockdale hope to lead Fulham to another victory this weekend in league action versus Cardiff.

We have an intriguing match in prospect this Saturday, Cardiff City renew hostilities with Fulham for a first meeting in the top flight between the two sides in 51 years. Over time the two sides could not be more evenly matched. From 47 encounters each has won 20 with seven drawn. Neither club comes into the fixture showing great form -- both have found goals at a premium thus far, and some are predicting a dour encounter with defence dominating.

- Report: Bent ends Craven Cottage wait

I'm going to buck that trend and predict both goals, and a Fulham win. The two teams experienced contrasting fortunes in mid-week League Cup action. Cardiff were edged out by the odd goal in five at West Ham, having recovered from being two down. Fulham, as we know, turned in their best 45 of the season to overhaul Everton Tuesday night and record a much-needed morale lifting win.

On the evidence of that, I expect Martin Jol's side to end the week in style with three points to take us out of the bottom three. To achieve that, Jol should resist tinkering with the team and trust the players to deliver.

If Darren Bent is to start the match, as surely he must, then Adel Taarabt is the man to give way -- as he did Tuesday night. I'm certain Steve Sidwell will return to line-up in midfield alongside Scott Parker, with Pajtim Kasami and Alex Kakaniclic retaining their places. There are plenty who would entrust Giorgos Karagounis with another start -- the 36-year-old was full of running right to the death against Everton, and of course his alert brain set up Bent from a free-kick for the game winner.

But Jol has his favourites as we know, and that means Sidwell, who can of course chip in with a vital goal from time to time. This blog from the middle of last winter was suggesting our Greek warrior as the ideal substitute for games in the final 20-25 minutes where we might want to protect a lead. That should be the basis for Sidwell's value to the cause, certainly for the first hour at least.

What Jol does across the back four is perhaps more debatable. I expect to see Sascha Riether and Kieran Richardson restored as full backs, with skipper Brede Hangeland (set to make his 200th league start) partnered with Fernando Amorebieta.

Whatever the gaffer decides, there's no excuse for the new boys not bedding in by now, plus we have plenty of options from the bench if things are not working. Might you be tempted to stick with the back four that finished the game on Tuesday -- with Philippe Senderos keeping his place and Amorebieta at left-back, plus Elsad Zverotic given another game on the right?

It's tempting. Did you realise the Whites have managed just one solitary shut out in the last 17 Premier League games at the Cottage? And that was the Stoke game in February when Jonathan Walters missed a penalty!

Couple the above with Fulham's lack of firepower up front (as evidenced at Chelsea) and indeed mentioned by the manager this week as a major issue, and it's easy to see why the side has endured such a barren run for so long.

But things are set to improve I'm certain -- as long as we now see a sustained spell from Dimitar Berbatov and Bent in attack. While not underestimating Cardiff, they don't have anyone in their side of the same quality. In fact, their big money buy of the summer from Denmark is crocked (Andreas Cornelius) and, like us, Malky Mackay knows his side do not carry enough goal threat.

Cardiff may be the promoted team still to establish their credentials in the EPL, but they showed their resilience when beating Man City 3-2, and Fulham's form has been so dire I'm certain Mackay fancies getting something from this one. For that reason, I don't think the new boys will just sit back, hence my prediction for goals. By the way, there has never been a goalless draw in the history of this fixture.

To round out the home team news, the prognosis on Maarten Stekelenburg is not good. He's another 2-3 weeks away at least, and if his shoulder is still causing problems after the next international break, the giant keeper faces an operation. That said, I have every confidence in David Stockdale, who more than deserves a run in the side. We finally receive news of Ashkan Dejagah, who is reported to have a 'calf strain.' That may or may not be the full story. We shall see. The local papers say Fulham are sweating on late fitness tests for Aaron Hughes and Bryan Ruiz. In my book neither should be considered for first team selection, even if fit.

Away from the pitch, a very interesting story surfaces in 'The Times', reporting a showdown meeting between Jol and the Academy staff. The paper also hints of an early exit for Jol within the next 30 days as Shahid Khan gets to grips with how the club he's paid big money for has been functioning.

As this is a bigger issue way beyond the scope of previewing the Cardiff game, I shall return to this next week -- hopefully with more material for you. Keep reading Fulham's most informative blog, and as ever on match day weekends, don't be shy about rolling down the windows of your car or throwing open the front door to yell COYW! Enjoy the game.

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