Fulham vs. Southampton: 5 Key Battles to Watch

Mike MillerContributor IIIDecember 26, 2012

Fulham vs. Southampton: 5 Key Battles to Watch

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    Wednesday's Boxing Day fixture between Fulham and Southampton marks the first repeat fixture in the 2012-13 Premier League season for both clubs.

    The previous encounter on October 7 ended in a 2-2 draw at St. Mary's. Both teams sit in the bottom half of the table, only separated by five points. Three points would be a great late present for either side.

    Fulham have been struggling of late, only picking up four points in their last five matches. The Cottagers may be boosted by the return of Bryan Ruiz, who is said to be 50/50 for the match, according to Fulham manager Martin Jol. Steve Sidwell will also be returning from suspension.

    Southampton have been in a better run of form, taking 10 points from their last six games, but have lost two of their last three. Adam Lallana is still out of the Saints lineup with a knee injury.

    Here are five matchups to keep your eye on Wednesday.

Dimitar Berbatov vs. Jose Fonte

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    Fulham will be happy to have Dimitar Berbatov in the lineup, since he missed Fulham's trip to the South Coast in October.

    Berbatov has been the primary danger man for Fulham, picking up five goals and three assists in 14 appearances for the Cottagers. The Bulgarian is very adapt at holding up the ball and making the key pass when he can't take the ball and scoring himself.

    Jose Fonte will likely be the primary man charged with keeping his sights on Berbatov. Fonte is solid enough to negate Berbatov in the air, as the Portuguese defender wins 68.6 percent of his aerial duels, according to WhoScored.com. Fonte will have to be careful not to be drawn into fouls by Berbatov though, as the Southampton stand-in captain is not the strongest tackler.

    The battle won't just take place in Fulham's offensive end though, as Fonte is a threat on the other end of the pitch as well. Fonte scored both goals in the 2-2 draw with Fulham earlier in the year, so Fulham must be aware of Fonte on corner kicks and other Southampton offensive set pieces.

Steve Sidwell vs. Morgan Schneiderlin

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    The center of midfield is likely to be a heavily contested and even battle during the Boxing Day fixture. And the primary stars of the battle will be Steve Sidwell and Morgan Schneiderlin.

    Both Sidwell and Schneiderlin are very keen to get stuck in and make tackles and interceptions. Sidwell averages 3.8 tackles and 2.7 interceptions per match, according to WhoScored.com. Schneiderlin is even more adept, averaging 4.4 tackles and 2.9 interceptions per match.

    Both are a bit prone to fouling, as both players average around two fouls per match and have both picked up four yellow cards in Premier League play this season. 

    Sidwell has the advantage on the offensive end, having scored four goals with two assists. Schneiderlin has two goals, but also has a better passing record, completing 85.3 percent of his passes.

    Whoever has the better match between these two will likely give their team the edge on Wednesday.

Rickie Lambert vs. Brede Hangeland

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    Rickie Lambert has truly been Southampton's "goal machine" this season, leading the team with six goals and three assists in 17 appearances for the Saints.

    Lambert has cooled off as he hasn't found the back of the net in his last three matches. The Liverpool native has struggled in a couple of aspects. Lambert's pass completion rate is only 67.6 percent, according to WhoScored.com. The 30-year-old has surprisingly struggled a bit in the air as well, only winning 43.6 percent of his aerial duels in the Premier League.

    Brede Hangeland will be charged with making sure Lambert stays in a slump. Hangeland and central defense partner Aaron Hughes kept Lambert fairly quiet in the previous meeting in October. Lambert was subbed off in the 67th minute after only getting 34 touches in the match.

    Hangeland has been a beast in the air, using his 6'6" frame to great advantage. The Norwegian has won 72.4 percent of his aerial duels in the Premier League, according to WhoScored.com, and won 83 percent of his duels against Southampton in October.

    Lambert may have the advantage in the matchup if Southampton can keep the game on the ground. Hangeland isn't very skilled at tackling, only averaging one tackle per match.

Jason Puncheon vs. ?

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    This matchup is a bit unclear because it is unknown where Jason Puncheon might be deployed against Fulham.

    With Adam Lallana out again, Puncheon may switch over to the left side and let Steve De Ridder, who performed pretty well in his first Premier League appearance Saturday against Sunderland, play on the right. Saints manager Nigel Adkins may keep Puncheon on the right and play Gaston Ramirez on the left again.

    The wing positions aren't a strength for Fulham, regardless of who ends up covering Puncheon. If Puncheon's on the right, John Arne Riise will likely see the most pressure. The veteran Norwegian is adequate defensively with 1.1 tackles and 2.1 interceptions per match, according to WhoScored.com. But Riise may struggle coping with Puncheon's pace.

    If Puncheon goes to the left, it may play out even worse for Fulham. Sascha Riether is not known for his defensive skills, although he is averaging 1.9 tackles and 1.4 interceptions per match. 

Mark Schwarzer vs. Kelvin Davis

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    While Kelvin Davis and Mark Schwarzer will most likely never be in the same area of the pitch, this is an important battle to keep an eye on.

    Both veteran keepers have had moments they would like to take back and are looking over their shoulder to the bench where other keepers are ready to take their place.

    Schwarzer, despite starting all 18 matches this season, has had a bit of a struggle. The 40-year-old has conceded 33 goals in 18 matches. When the goals start going in, it's usually a flood against him, as Schwarzer has conceded three or more goals in a match seven times this season.

    Schwarzer has only stopped 65,6 percent of shots against him, making 63 saves. The Australian international picked up a knock recently, resulting in backup David Stockdale being recalled from loan early from Hull City.

    Davis recently received his chance to restake his claim to the No. 1 spot in goal for Southampton when Paulo Gazzaniga picked up a shoulder injury. The 36-year-old has conceded 15 goals in his six appearances, keeping one clean sheet. Davis has struggled stopping shots as well, only saving 22 of 37 shots against him for a save rate of 59.4 percent. 

    Things have improved lately for Davis, as he has only conceded one goal in the behind a revamped Saints back four in the past two matches.

    Whoever can stand taller in net for their respective team will likely make the difference in Wednesday's match.