ESPN Soccernet Preview: Fulham v Aston Villa
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A 3-0 victory over Manchester United at Craven Cottage on December 19 last year offered further evidence of the remarkable job Roy Hodgson has done since arriving at Craven Cottage almost exactly two years earlier. Inheriting a squad that looked doomed to relegation, he has since assembled and motivated a group of players that can compete with the very best.
Yet that 3-0 win signalled a downturn that has seen Fulham take just one point from the five league games that have followed. After a respectable draw at home to Tottenham, they were narrowly beaten at neighbours Chelsea before losing away to Stoke, Blackburn and Spurs. Fulham have long been renowned as a team that struggles on the road, but a run of four straight defeats still represents a concerning statistic.
Aston Villa, three places and ten points ahead in seventh, have also seen their Premier League fortunes fade since December 19. That day, they beat Stoke 1-0, completing a run of four straight victories in the league that included a 1-0 win at Old Trafford. They have not won in the league since though, losing to Arsenal and Liverpool before drawing with West Ham and Arsenal (again), although they have won four out of four games in their domestic cup games and booked their place in the Carling Cup final.
Saturday marks an important day for two clubs that have grown accustomed to progress and even overachievement.
Fulham player in focus: Bjorn Helge Riise. John Arne's younger brother has yet to make his mark in the Premier League, but his appearances in the Europa League - including two assists for Bobby Zamora in the 3-2 win over Basle in mid-December - suggest the 26-year-old midfielder can succeed at Craven Cottage. He is a creative player with a fierce shot and, alongside Danny Murphy and Damien Duff, could cause problems on Saturday. He is under pressure to deliver, with Simon Davies awaiting his chance.
Aston Villa player in focus: Ashley Young. The winger is enjoying his time on the right flank and Gael Clichy suffered a miserable night on Wednesday when Arsenal visited Villa Park. With Fulham left-back Paul Konchesky struggling to prove his fitness and Toni Kallio and Chris Baird the alternatives for the position, Young could do plenty to exploit the lack of pace.
Key battle: Brede Hangeland v Emile Heskey. For so long the cornerstone of Fulham's successes, Hangeland has been off-colour in recent weeks and it is vital that he returns to form here. The defender is responsible for countering the aerial threat and, with Heskey providing the stature and knockdowns for Gabriel Agbonlahor, he will need to return to his usual commanding self on Saturday.
Tactics: Fulham could well employ Zoltan Gera as the second striker behind Bobby Zamora. That would suit Zamora, whose success earlier in the season came as he was played in a more advanced position, but he is still trying to shrug off his fitness worries. On the wings, Roy Hodgson is likely to play left-footer Duff on the right and right-footer Riise on the left with Murphy pulling the strings in the centre alongside a more defensive midfielder. Aston Villa, meanwhile, were accused of playing a "very efficient English game with long balls and very physical" by Arsene Wenger this week. Martin O'Neill strongly rejected those suggestions but, while there is more subtlety to their play than suggested, they are unafraid of going direct and relying on the pace and strength of their forwards. They have also proved adept as a counter-attacking side and could look to soak up Fulham's possession at Craven Cottage.
Quotes: Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill on the task ahead: "We've had a tough run of games and have another tough run of games ahead of us now. We're sticking at it and our players have done the football club proud in last couple of weeks. We're going to hang in there in the league."
Fulham striker Erik Nevland on the importance of victory at Craven Cottage this weekend: "We've had a bad run so we need to put that right on Saturday. We've been playing against very good teams recently and we haven't been playing too badly. It's always good to play at home and Saturday is going to be an important game and we have to put it right."
In the news: Martin O'Neill reacted furiously to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's suggestion that Aston Villa are a long-ball side. He said: "He has made a few ridiculous statements in his time here and that is as good as any. That's only an annoyance really at the end of it all. Anybody who saw the game wouldn't take that viewpoint. Ashley Young didn't have the time to play any long balls when he was taking that left-back to the cleaners. He didn't have time to do that. It's an appalling insult." Meanwhile, Fulham defender Chris Smalling is to join Manchester United at the end of the season for an undisclosed fee.
Fulham team news: Andy Johnson is set to miss out due to a knee injury, while left-back Paul Konchesky is battling to be fit after an ankle problem, so Toni Kallio or Chris Baird could take his place. Clint Dempsey and John Paintsil remain long-term absentees.
Aston Villa team news: Nigel Reo-Coker has been ruled out for at least three months, while Stephen Warnock has a shin problem. Nicky Shorey has returned from a loan spell at Nottingham Forest to provide additional defensive cover, but Luke Young is likely to continue at left-back. Striker John Carew was unavailable to face Arsenal with a knee problem and it remains unclear as to his hopes of playing on Saturday.
Probable Fulham line-up (4-4-2): Schwarzer, Kelly, Hangeland, Hughes, Kallio, Duff, Baird, Murphy, Riise, Gera, Zamora.
Probable Aston Villa line-up (4-4-2): Friedel, Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, Luke Young, Ashley Young, Milner, Petrov, Downing, Heskey, Agbonlahor.
Soccernet prediction: Fulham are on a woeful run of form, but they are a much tougher proposition on their home ground. However, given their potential weaknesses in defence - both in terms of form and fitness - Aston Villa should have enough to edge victory.