It's just another big game
By Dave Messenger
2nd May 1998. Craven Cottage, Fulham. Watford descend on Kevin Keegan's Big Spending Fulham, Peter Beardsley et al, with the intention of winning while hoping Bristol City, Champions flag et al, bugger things up at Preston so that the Hornets can be crowned Champions of Division Two.
Boxing Day 2000. Craven Cottage, Fulham. The Cottagers entertain fellow high fliers Watford in what was being billed as the game of the season in Division Whateveritwascalledthatseason.
19th January 2005. Craven Cottage, Fulham. Some cup-tie or another. Oh yes, that's right, the FA Cup. Doesn't count. Any fool knows that the Carling Cup is the one people really want to winů
There are two ways of looking at this one. Our last two competitive visits to Craven Cottage have been big games and on paper, so is this. The FA Cup, away from home, a large, noisy away following and a chance to claim another Premiership scalp. On the other hand, it's just another game in an already congested January schedule, and frankly, it's getting in the way of daydreaming about Liverpool. General wisdom says that this is the last thing we need right now, but with a bit of momentum building up after the good win over Crewe at the weekend, I reckon this tie comes along at a nice time for Watford. And just as those last two big games in West London had a bearing on what happened next, so will this one.
Fulham, if the evidence of yesterday's...ahem...gargantuan, rollercoaster thrill-fest of a Super (sic) Sunday match is anything to go by, are struggling a little right now. For those of you lucky enough to have had something better to do on a Sunday afternoon, Fulham laboured to a luck-tastic, Van Der Sar-inspired 1-0 win over Bryan Robson's WBA defeat-junkies with a last minute header from the missingfromthefirstmatch Papa Bouba Diop. The game featured a particularly ropey display from centre half pairing Zesh Rehman and Zat Knight, and a nasty looking ankle injury for Steed Malbranque, both things that were looked on favourably in the Messenger household. If Knight and Rehman are going to struggle with the likes of shot-shy Robert Earnshaw, Heidar Helguson on form, and due an afternoon in front of the TV instead of a trip to Wigan, will give the duo nightmares.
In goal for Fulham will be their star turn, and best performer from the first tie, Dutch International Edwin Van Der Sar. With both Arsenal and Manchester United sniffing around, Cottagers fans will be keeping their fingers crossed that a rumoured new contract is signed sharpish. Should a move materialise before Wednesday, ex-Forest blob Mark Crossley will most likely waddle his way between the sticks.
The back four appears unlikely to change from Sunday's game. The solid, former Arsenal full back Moritz Volz returned from flu for that one, and looks set to keep youngster Liam Rosenior out of this one. Shame that, as Rosenior struggled with Hameur Bouazza's pace at The Vic. In the centre, possibly the only pair of centre halves beginning with Z's in football history, the afore mentioned Zesh Rehman and Zat Knight, are likely to continue. Alternatives are a little thin on the ground with former West Ham carthorse Ian Pearce injured, along with French defenders Alain Goma and Jerome Bonnissel. Youngsters Liam Fontaine, who played in the first game, and Adam Green could feature should Coleman decide to ditch the Zesh 'n' Zat show, while a deal to bring Charlton's Mark Fish to the club fell through when the Addicks baulked at the price for Forest's Michael Dawson. At left-back, American Carlos Bocanegra picked up his fifth booking on Sunday, but won't be suspended until next weekend. This is fortunate, because he is shit. Arch-thug Ben Thatcher is reportedly set to join Fulham, but happily for Paul Devlin's shins and ankles he's cup-tied - and in any case this won't happen until next week as the half-witted Kevin Keegan won't rubber stamp the sale until he's found a replacement.
Fulham normally line up with five in midfield. In the centre, that injury to Malbranque, reported on various message boards to be a broken ankle, blows another sizeable hole in Fulham's squad. Chris Coleman's previous thoughts of resting players for their "far more important" Premiership (not premier, not a ship) campaign may have to be shelved as a result. This means we may see Sunday's goalscorer after all, even though he is one yellow card short of a ban. Lovingly nicknamed "The Wardrobe" by the Fulham faithful thanks to his sheer size, Diop has earned rave reviews this season and would be a threat should he start.
Alongside him, the pint-sized former Hatter Mark Pembridge, once the target of a meat and potato pie attack from Watford fans while taking a corner at the Baseball Ground, should feature. Another Frenchman, Sylvian Legwinski, played at the Vic and will probably fill the void left by Malbranque, leaving Coleman to pick between Diop and Lee Clark for the final berth. Clark, a former England International believe it or not, is slowly coming back from a long injury break. Danish International Claus Jensen is injured, while other options include the experienced Billy McKinlay, or youngster Michael Timlin.
In the wide positions, Tomasz Radzinksi and Luis Boa Morte started against West Brom. Canadian International Radzinksi missed the first match, but hasn't really impressed since his summer move from Everton. Boa Morte has signed his new contract but appeared disinterested on Sunday. However, the Portugese winger did for us in both games in 2000/01, so his very presence will be unsettling enough. Alternatives include Collins John, who appears to be the owner of a banjo on the evidence of the first game. Cows, mind your arses. Some messageboard correspondents favour a run on the right for Rosenior, while Legwinski can also fill in should Coleman go with Diop, Pembridge and Clark.
Up front, Andrew Cole, once known as Andy, and still among the top flight's leading scorers, will return from a one game ban. John can also play up there should Coleman decide to change the shape of his team, which would seem a popular move given the amount of fans who are not happy with playing one upfront. Once such fan, Fulham IFC's keeper no less, told me that lanky American Brian McBride should get the nod if that's the case. Youngster Elvis Hammond is another alternative.
As far as big games go, it's hard to get excited about this one. As I write, Watford haven't even sold out their allocation, no surprise with last Tuesday's trip north burning holes in most wallets. But with the Cups providing so much cheer already this season, and the carrot of a winnable fourth round tie at Derby dangling in front of us, we must fancy ourselves to do this. While most agree that resting one or two on Wednesday night may get them right for Liverpool, Watford need to ensure they don't walk away from this one on the end of a 0-5 gubbing, while a 2-1 win might be just the tonic before we all put our feet up at the weekend.