Preview from Planet Football
Fulham and Ipswich living up to their renowned potential would make this fixture one for the purists. Ipswich set the Premiership alight and earned the plaudits with their slick approach play last season, just as Fulham were gaining promotion to the top flight under what can be deemed Jean Tigana's 'total football' philosophy.
Not surprisingly encounters between the two sides have been notoriously tight affairs over the past couple of years, with the Blues' 1-0 victory at Portman Road in March 2000 sandwiched between a goalless draw and more recently, a 1-1 stalemate at Craven Cottage.
But the goals have been free flowing from the Ipswich camp since they turned the corner in December and it will take a resilient visiting defence to keep George Burley's marauding side at bay. The Tractor Boys have averaged a trio of strikes per game in their last three home league matches in succession, which all ended in victory and maximum points again could see them make substantial moves up the table. However, a heavy FA Cup defeat against Manchester City will have rocked the foundations somewhat.
Fulham are currently gracing the Premiership top 10 and remain unbeaten in 2002 - a record they will be keen to build on in Suffolk. The team who won just once and scored only four times in six outings during December have also stumbled across better form of late.
Full-back Steve Finnan, currently ranked the best defender in the top flight according to the Opta Index, admits that hopes are high within the camp: "There's a growing sense that perhaps we're capable of aiming beyond our original targets for the season. The boss said in the summer that he thought we'd finish between eighth and 12th, but there's a consensus now that with a bit of luck we could finish higher."
However, the Cottagers may need to improve in a couple of areas before such ambitions can be realised. Despite boasting the third best passing rate in the Premiership they still lack a cutting edge in attack and have tested the 'keeper with just 39% of their efforts. The return of Louis Saha, who missed the Sunderland clash with a broken nose, should bolster Fulham's strike force on the night.
The visitors also come off second best in the tackling stakes and with both sides eager to stroke possession around, ball-winning skills could be key to victory. If Town can dust themselves down after losing to the First Division leaders then good old-fashioned determination may be enough to see them through.
Matchday Referee: Alan Wiley
After taking charge of 14 games this season, Alan Wiley is holding his own near the summit of the referees' chart having awarded more fouls than any other top-flight official. However, despite such a show of authority Wiley has only flashed his red card on one occasion, which implies a rationality in his decision making.
In the Premiership he appears to have been reasonably evenhanded with little bias between home and away squads. He has refed only one Fulham game this season when we played Arsenal back in September. He booked 7 players amongst who were Boa Morte, Symons and Legwinski all for fouls. He perhaps could have been a bit firmer with the Arsenal backline.
Total (20) Ipswich wins 5 - Fulham wins 8 - Draws 7
HEAD TO HEAD NOTES
This is the first Premier League meeting of Ipswich and Fulham at Portman Road.
The Tractor Boys are vying for only a fourth win in 16 League matches with the Londoners.
Ipswich are chasing their third home League win in succession and fifth in a row in League and Cup.
Fulham's last League win at Portman Road was 39 years ago, when they notched a 0-1 success in the old League - Division One on 2 March, 1963.
THIS SEASON'S REVERSE FIXTURE: Fulham 1-1 Ipswich Town - Fulham scorer: Hayles 23
Ipswich scorer: Wright 55 - Sent Off: Boa Morte (Fulham) 45 Att: 17,221 - Ref: Mike Riley
An Ipswich Town Retrospective - From Ian McCulloch...
I remember reading a newspaper article a few years ago in which a journalist was making a case for "influencing" Cup draws. His argument was that that things would be a lot more exciting if you "fixed it" so that small clubs were always drawn at home to big ones, local clubs always played each other, etc, etc.
As an example of how dull things could be if left to natural selection, he cited Fulham being drawn away to Ipswich as the sort of game that nobody wanted. Bloody cheek I thought at the time. My rose tinted spectacles assumed that it was the Tractor Boys who were being held up as boring and we were just named as another team, but the comment has stayed with me.
Reputations are funny things and so are the perceptions that people have about teams. On the surface of it, Ipswich should have quite a lot going for them. They are a small club that has done well, so there's none of the rich club arrogance that you get from the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United. They've always played attractive, exciting football; whether they've been top of the table or struggling, they've never compromised their principles. They've never been dirty, they've never been controversial.
They've had many exciting forays into Europe and they've had plenty of star names, from Bobby Robson's ground-breaking Dutchmen, Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen through to Beattie, Wark, Mariner, Brazil and Dyer.
So why do they absolutely fail to inspire the imagination in any way whatsoever? There are lots of other teams like that, of course. Leicester, Middlesbrough, Coventry; no matter what they may ever do, in my mind they will always be dull. They will never ever be anyone that you'd want to go and watch. Irrational? Of course, but that's football.
What is slightly concerning is that people may think about Fulham in that way. Surely that can't be possible? The Whites have always played the most entertaining football, have always been involved in the most dramatic of matches, have always had the most fascinating of players, even when they haven't been particularly succesful. Well, in my eyes they have.
I read Danny Baker's piece in The Times the other week where he complained about Fulham's "soporific" football. I put that down to plain old jealousy, after all if you're a Millwall supporter you're just going to have a terrific chip on your shoulder anyway. But when I watch the Premiership highlights on television and see Fulham's best bits shoehorned into less than thirty seconds, the nasty thought that other fans just don't want to see us creeps into my mind.
But that can't really be, can it? We've played some of the most breathtaking football I've ever seen over the last few seasons. We've had more excitement with our ground battles and takeovers in the last ten years than most clubs will ever see. We've got the most high-profile and controversial Chairman, we've got one of the most sought-after managers in the world, we've got multi-million pound international star players and we play in one of the most picturesque grounds in the best location in the country. Dull? How can it be?
Anyway, dull or not, it's funny how some matches stick in your mind. And one of the one's that sticks in mine was against, funnily enough, Ipswich. It was October 1973 and we were drawn at home against them in the League Cup. They were First Division (old), we were Second. They had already beaten Real Madrid that season and were on an eleven match undefeated run; we were having one of usual slumps, having lost the last three games, conceding seven goals and scoring none.
It was a cracking game. Ipswich came out of the blocks like the thoroughbreds they were and took an early lead. Fulham responded magnificently, skipper Alan Mullery scoring a superb goal from a Les Barrett pass, and then returning the favour with a cross for Barrett to head the Whites into a half time lead.
The turning point of the game came when Les Barrett's second half shot hit the inside of the post and rolled across the goal line without going in. Ipswich came back to equalise, taking the tie back to Portman Road where they won the replay 2-1 despite the Whites going 1-0 in front.
Ipswich manager Bobby Robson had this to say about the first game:
"I must congratulate Fulham on their performance. The team played extremely well and I must admit I was sweating. It was a fantastic Cup-tie, set off by two great goals, and if the replay is anywhere near as good as good our fans are in for a real treat."
It really was a thrilling game, and had everything that you'd want from a football match. But, there were less than 9,000 people there that night, significantly fewer than had been turning up for League games. You can imagine the thought processes: "A game against First Division high-flyers and European conquerors? Nah, it's only Ipswich - boring! Stay at home."
Funny isn't it? I suspect a few people will see Wednesday's game like that. But you can never tell in football, I think this has all the makings of a real thriller, and this time I think the White's will come out of top.
Certainly both teams have got plenty to play for. Fulham need the three points to cement their place in the top half of the table and push on for that tempting European spot. Ipswich need to bounce back from their bitterly disappointing Cup display against Manchester City, and as manager George Burley says, they are still deep in the relegation dogfight.
"We're fighting hard to keep out of the bottom three," he said on Monday, "and we're really going to have to get our heads down and battle. The second half on Sunday was probably the worst 45 minutes of football we've played all season.
"Fulham have a number of excellent players, Saha, Hayles and Marlet are all dangerous and will need watching carefully. They play with a four-man defence and a diamond formation midfield, we must compete in all areas if we are to get the three points at Portman road. It's going to be hard, but we're going to be going all out for that win."
Boring? I don't think so.