The FourFourTwo Preview: Norwich vs Fulham
The reason Boxing Day games exist, or at least something to keep you awake on Match of the Day until the Ashes starts.
The last time these teams met, in February, the result was a goalless draw called "dismal" by the BBC and "utterly forgettable" by us, just now, in this preview. There's not a great deal to suggest this tete-a-Tettey (actually, Tettey's injured) will stray far from that template, even if both teams have every reason to attack.
- S'land 0-0 Norwich (Prem)
- Norwich 1-1 Swansea (Prem)
- WBA 0-2 Norwich (Prem)
- Liverpool 5-1 Norwich (Prem)
- Norwich 1-0 Palace (Prem)
- Fulham 2-4 Man City (Prem)
- Everton 4-1 Fulham (Prem)
- Fulham 2-0 Aston Villa (Prem)
- Fulham 1-2 Spurs (Prem)
- West Ham 3-0 Fulham (Prem)
Fulham's Kieran Richardson, restored not only to the team but to the left wing as part of a relatively defensive line-up against Manchester City, has called this Norwich clash a "must-win" for the Cottagers, and he's not wrong.
They should take heart from that encouraging – albeit ultimately futile – display against the title-chasers, in which they forced a generally rampant side into a number of errors. There's talk of Clint Dempsey making a triumphant two-month loan return, once he passes a medical to prove that Spurs spell didn't crush his spirit, but until that transpires in January it's up to Fulham's current squad to perform at Carrow Road and nab three all-important points.
Everything being relative, Norwich are on something approaching a run of form, with their only defeat in five games coming at the hands of all-conquering Liverpool and Norfolk's personal nemesis, Luis Suarez. However, Chris Hughton's men still aren't winning enough games. The victories over Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion were crucial, but draws with post-Europa Swansea and rock-bottom Sunderland resemble at least a couple of points dropped.
Going back into the previous season (last time we do this, promise), Norwich have gained just 38 points from their last 38 matches: barely enough to secure survival.
Shipping 11 goals in their last three away games – plus another four to Leicester in the League Cup – Fulham have conceded the most goals on the road this season apart from, err, Norwich. Even the revitalising Rene Meulensteen hasn't stopped the rot in that respect.
This fixture is an opportunity for the Canaries to hunt down some goals, having scored three in a game only once in the Premier League this term (in a 3-1 win over West Ham, including one deep into injury time).
City are still without Alex Tettey's ankle and Anthony Pilkington's hamstring, and there are fresh concerns over whether Jonny Howson will be fit to play without a back brace and crutches. Russell Martin should return, however, after being rested against Sunderland due to his worrisome ankle.
Dimitar Berbatov missed Fulham's defeat to Manchester City with a groin strain but should be available on Boxing Day, presuming he doesn't overdo the brandy, cigars and roasted swan the previous day. Brede Hangeland is a long-term absentee and there are doubts over Hugo Rodallega (what's new, etc etc) because of his own groinal injury. What have he and Dimi being doing, exactly?
Player to watch: Johan Elmander (Norwich)
The 32-year-old Swede has been a constant pick in recent weeks, starting Norwich's last five games while Luciano Becchio waits on the sidelines. Ricky van Wolfswinkel is fit again, and replaced Elmander for the final quarter of an hour last weekend, but it's Elmander who will be expected to feature heavily once again, and who could provide an aerial threat against Fulham.
The Galatasaray loanee provided the knock-down for Gary Hooper's wonderful goal against Swansea, something both Hooper and Hughton wouldn't mind seeing again, and won aerial duels in attacking areas in the draw with Sunderland. With Fulham missing their own Scandinavian colossus in Hangeland, Elmander could be Norwich's key man. He'll put in a defensive shift, too: last Saturday, he won 6 out of 7 tackles.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- N'wich 0-0 Fulham (Prem, Feb 13)
- Fulham 5-0 N'wich (Prem, Aug 12)
- Fulham 2-1 N'wich (Prem, Mar 12)
- N'wich 1-1 Fulham (Prem, Dec 11)
- Fulham 6-0 N'wich (Prem, May 05)
Norwich haven't beaten Fulham in 12 meetings, suffering a few shellackings on the way; their last victory came in March 1986, when Hughton was playing for Tottenham Hotspur, Meulensteen was celebrating his 22nd birthday and this correspondent was but a glint in the milkman's eye.
This represents Norwich's best chance in a while to fix that statistic, but much depends on Hughton's approach. If he recognises that this is a game for the taking, while ensuring his defence stay disciplined, he could guide his team into the top half.
Meulensteen must be more patient. Norwich will be vulnerable to counter-attacks, not least from the wings, so playing the waiting game and exposing gaps that appear may be the way for the visitors to win this game.
TIPS & TRENDS
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Facts and figures
- Norwich have only lost 3 of their last 17 home league games (W6 D8 L3).
- Only Cardiff have a worse half-time record than the Canaries (W3 D5 L9).
- There have been 3 or more goals in 7 of their last 12 matches.
- Fulham have had at least 3 goals in 6 of their last 8 fixtures and the Cottagers have conceded the opening goal in 10 of 12 away fixtures.
More FFT Stats Zone facts • Find the best odds with Bet Butler
All signs point to a snore draw, but FFT is feeling festive: away win with plenty of goalmouth action. 1-2.