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Carling Cup Tuesday: Fulham at Stoke City

20 September 2010

Fulham know what it feels like to concede at the Britannia Stadium.

Two interesting early-season themes will intersect Tuesday when Fulham completes it’s rough-and-tumble Premiership trifecta with a Carling Cup third-round match at Stoke City.

Much has been made of the fact that Fulham has not won an away match in league play since last season’s opener at doomed Portsmouth. Frankly, Fulham has been rancid on the road for five-plus seasons, compiling an almost unfathomable 9-37-52 (W-D-L) record since the start of the 2005-06 season. In averaging fewer than two away wins a season for half a decade, it makes the Cottagers’ three straight road victories to close out The Great Escape from relegation in 2008 even more remarkable. It also sheds some light on the quality (and unexpected nature) of the Europa League wins at Basel and Wolfsburg, and even the draws at Shakhtar Donetsk and Hamburg.

It’s not that this core *hasn’t* had some success on the road, so it’s a bit mystifying as to why they don’t more often. Given all that, forgive me if I take it with a healthy handful of salt that Mark Hughes is suggesting that Fulham has turned the corner on its road bugaboo after securing draws in its first three away matches of the current campaign.

It’s good to see the Cottagers actually try to play on the road instead of Roy Hodgson’s notoriously conservative tack away from home, and they have nicked points in a couple of sneakily tough road venues (Bolton and Blackburn). That said, Fulham hasn’t played anyone truly good away from home yet, so I’m not about to take three OK performances and interpolate them into a sudden series of road victories. There’s work to be done.

Tomorrow’s test isn’t a league match, but earning a Cup win at Stoke would be a nice next step in Fulham’s road progression, which is why I like Mark Hughes’ decision to put his best lineup on the field, as he did in the second-round tie against Port Vale. Not only will this be another good test of the reworked starting lineup without Bobby Zamora, but winning is a habit. You want to give your side every chance to expect success on the road, and it’s early enough in the season that Hughes can (and should) take this Cup seriously.

Stylistically, this match won’t be pretty. Stoke City aren’t quite as offensive to watch as Blackburn’s grade-school hoof-and-hope approach, but they also practice a distinct style of anti-football that’s low on aesthetics and high on Rory Delap throw-ins. This will be another good test for Fulham’s central defense, specifically goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, who was very shaky in the air at Ewood Park on the weekend. Fulham had an abominable first half at Stoke in the Premiership encounter last season, eventually losing 3-2 with a scoreline that was closer than the game seemed after Clint Dempsey’s wonder volley five minutes from time.

Hopefully they’ll be ready to play tomorrow. It’s as good a time as any for Fulham to grab a confidence-building win, although the Cup’s format (with no replays for regulation draws) may lend itself better to the Cottagers’ current run of road form. How about both?

Prediction: Stoke City 1, Fulham 1 (Fulham advances on penalties)

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