The last twenty four hours have finally given Fulham supporters a small, saccharine sampling of the excitement they've been hoping to taste for the past month. Shahid Khan's purchase of the club from Mohamed Al-Fayed was met with general approval and the hope that the American billionaire would start making direct deposits into Martin Jol's thirsty pockets. Fulham have never been a side to splash cash on marquee signings, but the consensus was that Jol would find himself in a position to make a number of much needed shrewd but exciting purchases. In actuality, the Fulham manager has had to make do with shrewd and shrewder modest buys and loan signings. Such is the case with Darren Bent's one year loan deal from Aston Villa, but at least the striker's name is one that gets the collective heart beating just a little bit faster and addresses a significant deficiency in a side that has lacked a foil to Dimitar Berbatov's creative flair.
In contrast, Paolo Di Canio has spent the summer transfer window writing checks and signing Ellis Short's name in an effort to transform his Sunderland side into an outfit more reflective of his temperament and footballing philosophy. Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini headline a group of ten new signings, most of whom are likely to feature in tomorrow's match at the Stadium of Light.
Fulham are not facing the underwhelming Sunderland side of last year's campaign that still managed to trounce the Cottagers 3-1 in a November match that was largely pointed to as the catalyst of a miserable spell that saw Fulham slide down the league table after a bright start to the season. Essentially, this Sunderland vintage is of an unknown quality, but early signs point to them being much improved.
There's no reason yet to believe that Fulham have found any antidote to cure their infamous away malaise, and with Darren Bent available but short on match fitness and unlikely to start, Martin Jol will likely opt to field one striker (Berbatov) in a 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1 formation with an emphasis on defensive shape and attacks predicated on Berbatov checking into space to build possession and then go forward. Bent and fellow loan signing Adel Taarabt may see action in the second half if the score line dictates a more attacking approach.
Alexander Kačaniklić is set to miss out through injury, but Ashkan Dejagah is fit again and will be looking to recapture the good form he was showing before his season was ended through injury last campaign.
With Steven Fletcher out of the fixture through injury, Jozy Altidore will likely lead the Black Cats' line. Altidore is currently playing like a house on fire and is coming off a hat trick performance against a Bosnia side on the cusp of FIFA World Cup qualification. Forget the Altidore you may remember from Hull City's 2009 campaign. This Altidore is the super advanced liquid metal Terminator to 2009's lumbering, robotic you-can-crush-him-in-an-industrial-press Terminator. Di Canio will likely deploy him as the target forward in a 4-4-2 or even a 4-3-3 with some combination of Adam Johnson, David Karlsson, and Stephane Sessegnon free to make outside in runs and runs in behind on the flanks. Giaccherini, whether he's used in midfield or as a left back, will also likely be given freedom to get forward to create width.
To extend the Terminator analogy, the way to limit Sunderland's effectiveness going forward is to drop Altidore into a vat of molten steel and keep his separated self from reforming into that super awesome liquid metal Terminator. Essentially, starve him of possession and prevent him from linking up with Sessegnon, Johnson, Karlsson, et al. Brede Hangeland and Fernando Amorebieta will have their hands full preventing Altidore from getting the ball at his feet too often.
Unfortunately, I predict a disappointing day out on Wearside and a debut to remember for Altidore. 2-1 Sunderland.