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Fulham host out-of-form Villa - Preview - Aston Villa (h)

Dimitar Berbatov returns to the starting eleven while Mahamadou Diarra makes unexpectedly quick recovery.

Ian Walton

The return of domestic football has thrown up an intriguing encounter at Craven Cottage this Saturday, where Fulham take on an out-of-form and out-of-sorts Aston Villa side.

Just under three years ago, we lost this same match, at home, and showed little in the way of resistance. Martin O'Neill was in charge of Villa then, and they were very much considered a top six side. But a lot can change in a relatively minimal amount of time.

On this occasion, we go into the match as favourites, boasting a line-up which may include Dimitar Berbatov and Mahamadou Diarra, amongst others, while, as is the way with Paul Lambert, his Midlands side will be fielding an array of lower-league signings.

It was a shift in the proceedings that few would have predicted at the time but now, three years on, Martin Jol will want to exploit the newly-found Villa inferiority complex.

We go into the game lapsing in form. We haven't won since mid-September at the DW Stadium, losing to Manchester City and drawing with Southampton. Brede Hangeland and his defence, in particular, will be keen to put their St Mary's display behind them after two goals conceded from set pieces denied Fulham the three points.

Villa, meanwhile, have more to worry about. They have picked up 5 points from a possible 21 and are left languishing just above the relegation zone. Their saving grace so far this season has been a noteworthy Capital One Cup victory over Manchester City.

On the opening day of last season, under Alex McLeish, two superb Shay Given saves meant Fulham could only start their campaign with a 0-0 draw, while in the reverse tie, the home side were victorious at Villa Park.

At Craven Cottage, Fulham have won 13 times against Villa and drawn 12, while the Villains have won on 4 occasions. In an overall record of 60 matches, Fulham have won 18, Villa 21, and there have been 21 draws.

Villa will travel with doubt over a wrist injury sustained by Stephen Ireland as Richard Dunne and Craig Gardner are certainties to sit out.

Berbatov will return to the starting line-up and Mahamadou Diarra, who has made an exceptionally speedy recovery from a knee complaint, will be in the squad. Bryan Ruiz is a concern after picking up a knock on international duty and Simon Davies remains unavailable.

Score prediction: Fulham 2-0 Villa