Friday 6 December 2013 16:30

Rene Meulensteen has no fresh injury worries ahead of Saturday’s clash with Aston Villa and may be tempted to name an unchanged starting XI following the fine display in the midweek defeat to Tottenham Hotspur.

There will, however, be no place in the matchday squad for Fulham’s on-loan Aston Villa striker Darren Bent who is unable to play against his parent club. Brede Hangeland remains sidelined following his surgery, while Kieran Richardson and Moussa Dembélé (both hamstring) are unlikely to feature.

The visitors may have to do without captain Ron Vlaar. The Dutchman was forced off at half-time during the midweek win at Southampton with a calf complaint and is rated as a major doubt for the clash at the Cottage.

Villa lost their skipper for two months last season to a similar problem and Vlaar will be assessed over the next couple of days. Matt Lowton replaced Vlaar in midweek, with the right-back slotting into the three-man backline alongside Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker.

“We had a blow losing Ron at half-time,” said Villa boss Paul Lambert. “We’ll have to wait and see how he is. He was in a wee bit of pain so we’ll have to assess him and see how he is.”

Joe Bennett could make a timely return from a back injury to help fill the defensive void if Vlaar misses out. Jores Okore (knee ligaments) and Charles N'Zogbia (Achilles) are both long-term absentees.

Lambert also has a selection headache over whether to recall Christian Benteke to his starting XI after fellow strikers Gabby Agbonlahor and Libor Kozak scored in midweek.

Tickets for Sunday's game with Aston Villa (1.30pm) are available to purchase on General Sale, with a 50 per cent discount available to Season Ticket Holders.

The opposition

Villa go into Sunday’s game unbeaten in their last five league matches, a run that has propelled them up to the dizzy heights of 10th. On Wednesday, they secured a superb 3-2 win at high-flying Southampton thanks to a spectacular late winner from Fabian Delph.

"We needed three points and I thought we were lethal in front of goal,” said Lambert. "Agbonlahor's goal was world class - when he’s like that with his speed and power there are not many people can catch him.

"I've nothing but praise for the team who came back really strongly in the second half and won a really good game."

Lambert’s side began the season in equally fine fashion, earning a shock 3-1 victory away to Arsenal on the opening day before three straight defeats quickly brought them back down to earth.

Worryingly for Fulham, it’s away from Villa Park where Lambert’s men have picked up the majority of their 19 points this season. The Villans’ only defeat on their travels was a 2-1 reverse at Chelsea in August.

Last Time Out

Aston Villa 1-1 Fulham 13.04.2013

Fulham reached the much-coveted 40-point mark after earning a 1-1 draw away from home the last time they faced Aston Villa.

Then-Fulham boss Martin Jol made two changes from the side that had lost at Newcastle United, with left-sided duo Richardson and Urby Emanuelson drafted in – John Arne Riise and Stanislav Manolev dropping to the bench.

Fulham were dealt a blow on 10 minutes when Damien Duff pulled up after trying to control a loose ball and the winger had to be replaced by Manolev. And the Bulgarian saw an opportunity fall his way not long after his introduction. Richardson’s cross was flicked on by Bryan Ruiz but Manolev could only slice wide at the far post under pressure from Bennett.

The home side went within a whisker of scoring on 32 minutes through N’Zogbia when the Frenchman struck goalwards from Benteke’s pull-back, only to see Mark Schwarzer respond with a brilliant reaction save to push it round the post.

N’Zogbia drew another smart stop from Schwarzer with a rasping drive from a full 30 yards, before Andreas Weimann dragged a shot wide on 45 minutes having collected Benteke’s flick-on.

Villa started the second half strongly but it was Fulham who should have taken the lead. Ruiz sent Dimitar Berbatov clean through but the striker’s placed effort clipped the outside of the post before going behind.

And Fulham were made to pay on 55 minutes. The Whites failed to clear their lines after Hangeland had intercepted Weimann’s attempted cross and the ball fell to N’Zogbia who took a touch before curling a sublime effort beyond Schwarzer and inside the far post.

Fulham were level 11 minutes later, though, when Ruiz’s teasing corner was met at the near post by Delph who inadvertently flicked it beyond Brad Guzan as the Whites earned a deserved share of the spoils.

Players to watch

Fabian Delph: Such has been the consistency of Fabian Delph’s good form that some are tipping the central midfielder for a surprise England call. Full of energy, Delph provides Aston Villa with a bit of everything in their engine room as he is equally happy breaking up the play in front of the back four as he is bursting forward and assisting the attackers. He also has a wicked shot on him, as Southampton learnt to their detriment in midweek when he concluded a marauding run from deep with a venomous left-foot strike that flew into the top corner.

Gabriel Agbonlahor: An athletic striker with pace to burn, Gabby Agbonlahor was a menace to Fulham in the 2009/10 season when he notched three times against the Whites. Now in his ninth season with the Villa first team, the 27-year-old has made more than 300 appearances for his boyhood club, notching 77 goals in the process. The forward has struggled to find the back of the net so far in the current campaign, though, with his maiden strike coming in midweek against the Saints. But there’s no doubt that his pace and strength will always be a threat.

Leandro Bacuna: Young Dutchman Leandro Bacuna arrived in the Midlands in the summer from Groningen and has become something of a cult hero already at the club. Primarily a winger, he’s also operated at right-back this season to good effect and has an energy that allows him to get up and down the pitch. From wide he’s capable of delivering a cross with unerring accuracy, while he’s also something of a free-kick specialist, having netted from dead-ball situations against Manchester City and Cardiff City already in 2013/14.

Magic numbers

45 - American keeper Guzan has made 18 more catches (45) than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League this season.

2 - Villa are the only team to squander more than one penalty in the Premier League this season (2).

1 - Fulham have won just one of their last 11 Premier League games at Craven Cottage, losing nine (W1 D1 L9).

11 - Fulham have trailed in 11 games this season, more than any other side. They have lost 10 of these matches (D1).

50 - Villa completed only 50 per cent of their passes in their midweek away game, the lowest figure recorded in a Premier League match since April 2010 (Wolverhampton Wanderers against Stoke City).

4 - There have been just four goals scored in the last four Premier League meetings between Fulham and Aston Villa.

54 - Bent played 54 times in the Premier League for Aston Villa before moving to Fulham this summer, scoring 21 goals.

5 - Villa are unbeaten in their last five Premier League games; only Everton (7) are currently on a longer run.

1 - Fulham have won just one of the last eight Premier League games against Aston Villa (W1 D4 L3).

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