Arsenal seek revenge at Fulham
Arsenal travel to Fulham aiming to avenge last season's damaging reverse at Craven Cottage and avoid a third successive Premier League defeat on the road.
After last season's heroics, Roy Hodgson seems to have become a victim of his own success. The Europa League is being treated as an unwelcome distraction rather than a badge of honour and fans are openly questioning his policy on selection. An indifferent start to the league campaign hasn't helped in this respect. Despite resting ten players for the Cottagers' European clash at CSKA Sofia, Fulham surrendered meekly at Wolves last Saturday. Hodgson can only draw comfort from a scrappy win at Portsmouth on the opening day and a spirited second half display against Everton, but both victories owed much to their opponents' failings.
A narrow home win over a shaky Arsenal side last August sparked an excellent run of home form which ultimately propelled the club into Europe. The Gunners arrive at the Cottage this time around possessing a similar shred of vulnerability, but gaining three points will prove a much taller order for Fulham.
Wenger can lay claim to a topsy-turvy start too. Thrashings of Everton and Portsmouth were followed by two defeats in Manchester, at United and City, while a 4-0 scoreline over Wigan flattered a fragile Gunners side who were reliant on a brace from new centre-half Thomas Vermaelen to up the margin of victory. Prior to that Arsenal somehow managed to emerge from their Champions League tie at Standard Liege with a win, but their next four top-flight games offer a chance to regain early season momentum.
Last season's reverse at Craven Cottage pre-empted their drift away from Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United at the top of the table. The ghosts of that performance need to be dispelled on Saturday. A defeat would be their third in a row on the road; they only lost three away from home all last season.
Despite nearing the twilight of his career, Danny Murphy is still the focal point of Roy Hodgson's side. He started all of Fulham's Premier League games last season and is still relied upon heavily for his creativity. Murphy will have his hands full with the amount of willing runners in Arsenal's fluid midfield and their new tactic of pressing opposing teams ferociously, and high up the pitch. Murphy will channel Fulham's attacking movements down the flanks where Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff offer width. He relies on cover from Dickson Etuhu on the rare occasions he decides to break forward to try and meet whatever delivery his wingers can provide.
Cesc Fabregas couldn't even raise a smile upon scoring Arsenal's fourth goal against Wigan last Saturday; either a telling insight into his current state of mind or a reflection of the fact he had been struggling with an injury. Despite much trumpeting over the summer, Arsenal's captain must realise the title is beyond them and retaining top-four status is the more realistic priority.
Fabregas was imperious against Everton and Portsmouth, missing through injury at United and ineffective at City, where he, along with Robin van Persie, fell victim to rough treatment from former team-mate Emmanuel Adebayor. Etuhu and Murphy will try and throw him off stride, a prerequisite for any side facing Arsenal, but Fabregas has the quality to carve up opposing teams. Maybe three points at the Cottage would put a smile back on the Spaniard's face.
It is doubtful Andy Johnson will ever match his haul of 21 Premier League goals for Crystal Palace in the 2004-05 season but the 28-year-old still has the quality to turn a match, no matter who his opponents are. However, a return of seven goals in 33 top-flight games since his £10 million move from Everton has not yet represented value for money. He can justifiably point to the lack of a regular partner to match his quality, but he should be finding the net more often. Hodgson should deploy Bobby Zamora alongside him, hoping the classic big man/little man combination can pay dividends. Johnson possesses the movement and pace to trouble Vermaelen and company, but he must be ruthless with any chances that fall his way.
Vermaelen has made quite an impact since his £10 million move from Ajax in the summer. Some pundits have even joked the Belgian could finally be the clinical finisher Wenger has been searching for, after he netted four goals in his first seven games for the club. His brace against Wigan was the epitome of power and precision, as he steered a bullet header into the net for his first before curling a delightful second into the top corner. Quite apart from his goal threat, he has looked at home with the rigours of the English game and he already gives off a more commanding air than William Gallas. Vermaelen will have to contend with Johnson's pace and jinking movement, while Zamora and Hangeland will pose problems from corners and free kicks. He will match that threat with his own during set pieces at the other end.
Arsene Wenger debated a move for Hangeland in the summer, overtures that weren't exactly shunned by the Norwegian, but Vermaelen's excellent early-season form persuaded the Arsenal boss to stick with his lot. Hangeland has been consistent and reliable for Hodgson, and his solid partnership with Aaron Hughes was central to last season's success. He missed only one league game in 2008-09 and recorded 14 clean sheets.
For such a prominent aerial figure he should have improved on his goal tally, which stands at just one - the winner in this fixture last year. Hangeland can afford Van Persie little space if he is to stultify Arsenal's attacking threat, and must prevent him shooting from anywhere within range. He should also be detailed with marking Vermaelen at set pieces - an important task, given the Belgian's early scoring form.
Van Persie showed no lasting hangover from his clash with Adebayor during an instrumental performance in Arsenal's win over Wigan. In his new capacity as the Gunners' undisputed leader of the line he has racked up four assists in five Premier League games this season, but just one goal, in the controversial defeat at Eastlands. His strike rate is more than one in two for the previous three seasons but all have been blemished by injury. Fulham's indifferent start to the campaign offers the Dutch international a chance to prove he is worthy of the faith Wenger continues to show in him. Arsenal's potency will again hinge on how he links with midfield runners and the space he can create for himself.