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Matchday 14: Fulham vs. Manchester City

20 November 2010

Heading into their first head-to-head meeting, both Mark Hughes and Roberto Mancini are feeling some pressure.

The first Goalless Draw Derby is upon us and the self-loathing in these parts is palpable. With both City and Fulham banged up and offering less punch than a child’s juice box, Jake and I have been left seething our way through a series of dour, defensive displays that have left both clubs languishing below expectation.

What does this mean for tomorrow’s affair at the Cottage, when Mark Hughes gets his first crack at tweaking his former employer and stagnating their run toward Champions League play in 2011? In my mind, it’s more up to Roberto Mancini and the posture he adopts, because with the current state of the Fulham roster, we pretty much know what we’re going to get.

With Moussa Dembele’s latest ankle injury, suffered midweek in one of those amazingly needless international friendlies, Fulham’s options up top seem pretty obvious. Either Andy Johnson and Clint Dempsey will cobble together a makeshift attack, or Hughes will isolate one of them up top (like Dembele vs. Chelsea) and play a five-man midfield, hoping to take some control of the middle of the park against what may be City’s biggest strength. Dickson Etuhu should be back in the starting XI, which is a big plus for the Cottagers, as without his physical ballwinning and developed partnership with Danny Murphy, Murphy has been left looking worryingly like an aging central midfielder whose erratic distribution and sloppy turnovers have been more harm than help.

Another plus, if media reports can be believed, is the return of Carlos Salcido early from his own leg troubles. Without his ambitious runs up the left wing, Fulham’s attack has been very predictable and very central, putting even more pressure on Murphy to create something for secondary attacking options. It hasn’t worked.

That said, the type of game we get likely will rest in the posture taken by Roberto Mancini, who is feeling some heat for City’s recent series of drab results. If he opts for his ultra-defensive triple-DM look, City will dominate the midfield (and likely the ball) but they may find it difficult to broach a Fulham defense that has played much better recently after leaking goals early in the campaign. Brede Hangeland gets most of the pub (deservedly so, as he’s back in form after an injury-impacted second half of last season), but Aaron Hughes has probably been the better player this season and the more versatile, mobile Hughes likely will see a lot of waterbug striker Carlos Tevez. If they can contain him, it’s not clear where City’s secondary sources of offense will come from if they play it conservative in the midfield.

That said, I’d expect Mancini to be a bit more aggressive here considering Fulham’s makeshift attack probably won’t threaten City all that often. Jake can tell you more about the expected personnel, but I’d expect a more positive posture from City, at least at the outset.

Most games in the Prem “could use an early goal” to jumpstart them, but this one may be high on that list. The longer this goes 0-0, the more taut it could become. Even with Hughes (and Mancini) denying it, this is a big match beyond the three available points in the table. If it remains scoreless into the second half, conservatism will probably rule the day.

Nothing would surprise me tomorrow and recent history has seen a sizable number of goals scored in matches between these two teams. If there’s an early breakthrough by someone, it could lead to a very entertaining and open match. Since I can’t stomach the though of another 0-0 and Jake and I alternating swings from a flask of arsenic, I’ll predict an earlyish goal and an entertaining match.

City’s talent and a history of success at the Cottage is enough to carry them though…

Prediction: City 2, Fulham 1

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