Two consecutive Saturday afternoons; two London clubs battling to avoid relegation; two games against a Newcastle side out of form and with little to play for. Ideal circumstances in which to assess the current predicaments of Fulham and Crystal Palace – and their chances of Premier League survival.
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He may no longer be Fulham’s owner but, as someone obsessed with car crashes, there’s a good chance that Mohammed Al-Fayed has still been closely observing events at Craven Cottage this season. For the past eight months the Cottagers have, like the man whose statue Al-Fayed erected outside the ground, become synonymous with one short word: bad.
As exemplified by their concession of six second-half goals without reply at Hull, Fulham’s problems have been, essentially, twofold: a shot-shy attack and a defence that contravenes the Trades Description Act. It’s not a combination conducive to winning many games of football. New owner Shahid Khan’s trigger finger has been as itchy as his moustache is luxuriant, first replacing Martin Jol with fellow Dutchman Rene Meulensteen in December before then binning the latter too and hiring Felix Magath. Meulensteen, who was initially brought to the club as a coach, lasted just two months – though that must have felt like a purgatorial eternity compared to his sixteen-day managerial reign at Anzhi Makhachkala.
The club’s transfer dealings have been no less embarrassing. Take Ryan Tunnicliffe, for instance, who was signed in January from Man Utd by Meulensteen, his former coach at Old Trafford. Just two first-team appearances later and Meulensteen was sacked, his replacement Magath deemed Tunnicliffe surplus to requirements and he was packed off to Wigan on loan. At the same time, Fulham have had to look on as Adel Taarabt – the sporadically brilliant but more frequently infuriatingly Moroccan they had on loan from fellow Londoners QPR during the first half of the season, who made little impact – not only scored himself an improbable move to Milan but has flourished in his new surroundings.
Relegation battles often call for experience, and that’s one thing the Cottagers certainly don’t have in short supply. You’ve heard of the Chelsea Pensioners – well, meet the Fulham Fogies. Craven Cottage has become established as the national headquarters of Help the Aged, a retirement home for Premier League footballers: Dimitar Berbatov (until recently), Scott Parker, John Heitinga, Darren Bent, John Arne Riise, Damien Duff, Kieran Richardson, Hugo Rodallega. Add to that lengthy list thirtysomethings like Derek Boateng, the previously imperious but increasingly fallible Brede Hangeland, the recently re-signed Mahamadou Diarra and Giorgos Karagounis, the most capped player in Greece’s history, and you start to appreciate that creaky knees are as much of a problem as squeaky bums. Given their average age, perhaps it’s little wonder that apparently the players didn’t know where they were.
Quite how the news of Magath’s appointment was taken by these senior pros is unclear, though it does seem reasonable to assume that their egos wouldn’t exactly allow them to roll out the red carpet for a manager once dubbed “the last dictator in Europe“. He had had previous spells at Stuttgart, Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg (twice) and Schalke, but had never worked outside Germany, and so despite his reputation as a firefighter, the appointment nevertheless represented a considerable gamble on Khan’s part.
Nevertheless, even a seasoned Premier League manager would struggle to know what to do with the dog’s dinner of a squad that Magath inherited, and so it’s hardly surprising that he doesn’t seem to have a clue as to what his best side might be. Following the 3-1 defeat to relegation arch-rivals Cardiff, he took the bold move of dropping Dutch international ‘keeper Maarten Stekelenburg for David Stockdale, but the decision was arguably vindicated by the latter’s display against Newcastle, during which he pulled off two vital saves from Papiss Cisse, the second just seconds before Fulham took the lead. Meanwhile, Konstantinos Mitroglou was omitted from the squad altogether – a staggering move, given that the January purchase from Olympiakos is the club’s £12m record signing and has been brought in specifically to score goals.
Fernando Amorebieta, a summer recruit from Athletic Bilbao, was signed to prevent them and, according to Fulham blog Craven Cottage Newsround, enjoyed “one of his best games for the club” against the Magpies. That speaks volumes about the Venezuelan’s performances in previous matches, as personally I thought he looked shakier than a hypothermia-stricken Shakin’ Stevens operating a pneumatic drill; he just had the good fortune to come up against a pair of hopelessly out-of-form strikers in the form of Cisse and Luuk de Jong. No such luck in the Cottagers’ next fixture, as they went down 5-0 at Man City – Amorebieta conceding two penalties and earning a straight red card for the second foul.
Against Newcastle it wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. After all, Fulham won the match – their first three-point return in ten games – courtesy of a second-half goal from Ashkan Dejagah. The Iranian, accustomed to Magath’s coaching methods from his time at Wolfsburg, took up where Alex Kacaniklic had left off in terrorising Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa with pace and directness, the visitors’ makeshift right-back making the fatal error of inviting the winger to cut inside onto his favoured right foot and a partially unsighted Tim Krul allowing the skidding drive to slip under his dive. (It typified Fulham’s fortunes, though, that the substitute then had to be substituted himself due to injury.)
In central midfield, one loanee (Dane William Kvist) looked a bit of a liability, presenting Cisse with a golden opportunity to open the scoring shortly before Dejagah did so at the other end; but the other (Spurs’ Lewis Holtby) proved his worth, scampering about energetically and testing Krul with a vicious curling shot in an otherwise largely uneventful first half.
Both Kvist and Holtby are short-term, stop-gap solutions, though – what hope is there for the future? On the surface of it, not much – the club are bottom of the league and have a largely geriatric squad. But against the Magpies a couple of young players gave the home crowd reason to be cautiously optimistic. The aforementioned Swede Kacaniklic offered a threat on the flanks, and though Pajtim Kasami was mostly ineffectual (that goal against Palace looks increasingly like a fluke) his strike partner Cauley Woodrow showed considerable promise. Having only made his debut the previous weekend in that ignominious defeat to Cardiff, Woodrow retained his place and proved himself a willing runner, leading the line with maturity beyond his tender years. When Heitinga’s shot bounced down off the underside of the crossbar onto the goalline and stayed out by a matter of millimetres, he was sufficiently alert to follow up, only for the goal to be cruelly (though rightly) chalked off due to an offside flag. From being recalled from a disappointing loan spell at League Two side Southend to selection ahead of Mitroglou, Bent and Rodallega for his Premier League parent club – what a difference (less than) two months makes.
Fulham appear to be particularly blessed in terms of young strikers. While Woodrow was dropped for yesterday’s meeting with Everton, his place was taken by French-born Moussa Dembele (not to be confused with the club’s former favourite Mousa Dembele), who already has several goals for the U21s to his name, and 17-year-old Patrick Roberts made an appearance from the bench. Meanwhile, Italian Marcello Trotta had sufficient character to return to Brentford on loan after a first stint ultimately clouded by controversy and catastrophe. Not that all of their youngsters are forwards, though – Dejagah’s replacement against Newcastle was Dan Burn, a hulking 6ft 7in central defender born on the Magpies’ doorstep. His loan period at Birmingham didn’t coincide with any improvement in Blues’ defensive form, though, and the jury is out.
Sadly for Fulham, the same can’t really be said for their chances of survival, which look even slimmer after losing to Everton.
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While Fulham were busy giving themselves false hope with that 1-0 victory at Craven Cottage, Crystal Palace had travelled to the north-east to take on fellow relegation candidates Sunderland. The Eagles’ desire to win appeared secondary to their desire to avoid defeat – indeed Tony Pulis admitted as much afterwards – and the result was a goalless draw devoid of anything remotely resembling quality or entertainment.
Perhaps Palace’s caution was misguided – after all, in their opening twelve matches of the season in all competitions, the Black Cats were the only team they managed to beat. By the time that second victory came around, at Hull on 23rd November, the man who had secured them promotion had already been gone a month.
Even on the first day of the new campaign, Ian Holloway cut an uncharacteristically dejected and disconsolate figure. In the end a Roberto Soldado penalty was all that separated his side, just finding their feet in the top flight for the first time since 2005, and illustrious visitors Spurs, for whom Champions League qualification was the minimum target – and yet Holloway was already angrily poking the FA in the eye by complaining that referees favour certain teams. “It’s going to be a long, hard season for me with these people“, he added.
As it turned out, Holloway’s season with the Eagles was indeed hard but certainly not long. The crushing 4-1 home defeat by Fulham, in which Kasami’s wondergoal sparked a devastating comeback from the Cottagers, was the final straw and, bereft of his customary enthusiasm and questioning his own abilities, he left by mutual consent on 23rd October, admitting “I just feel pretty worn out“. Asked to identify why the team had lost to every single opponent except Sunderland, he explained: “We tried to change too quickly. It’s really important that you keep your dignity. With the changes in the squad I have to hold my hand up: we didn’t keep that spirit that got us up, we lost some very important parts of it. Some of the new lads, their attitude and where it is, I’m finding it slightly annoying and that ain’t right.”
That candid assessment validated what many, myself included, had thought of their summer transfer activity. Spending was scattershot, and the only discernible strategy appeared to be to sign a whole team of forward-thinking midfielders with Premier League experience from the fringes of other squads; how else to explain the arrivals of Jerome Thomas, Barry Bannan, Jimmy Kebe, Jason Puncheon and Adlene Guedioura? Marouane Chamakh and Cameron Jerome may have been strikers, but both were also serial top-flight benchwarmers. The one real coup looked to be Sevilla’s former Spanish U19 captain Jose Campana – but he mustered just six appearances before being shipped off to 1. FC Nurnberg on loan.
Unlike Magath, who has made no discernible difference to Fulham’s performances, Holloway’s replacement Pulis effected a remarkable revival when he arrived at Selhurst Park. Largely this was thanks to the sort of defensive fortitude and meanspiritedness exhibited on Wearside, though in truth two clean sheets in his last two games in charge mean some of the credit is due to caretaker manager Keith Millen. The Eagles’ renaissance under Pulis was founded on their home form (the 3-0 pre-Christmas defeat to Newcastle a solitary blip, until recently), and specifically home wins over fellow strugglers with whom they’re jostling for position. What will now be worrying the baseball-capped former Stoke man is the fear that the impact of both his appointment and his January signings appears to be wearing off with Palace still deep in trouble. Was the revival just a dead cat bounce?
One of the aforementioned January purchases was defender Scott Dann, who has displaced the vastly experienced Danny Gabbidon in the starting XI. Palace will be praying he can form as watertight a partnership with Damien Delaney as he did with Roger Johnson at Birmingham. Peter Ramage, a stalwart of the promotion side, was deemed not good enough for the Premier League (as a Newcastle supporter I readily concur) and packed off to Championship outfit Barnsley on loan, so central defensive options are limited.
Much the same is true at left-back; with Jonathan Parr injured and question marks hanging over Dean Moxey’s ability at the highest level, Joel Ward has been asked to switch flanks. The former Portsmouth man has been a revelation, and indeed the fact that Palace are competing in the Premier League at all is as much thanks to his injury-time goalline clearance in the play-off final against Watford as to Kevin Phillips’ late strike. Against Newcastle, he looked relatively comfortable handling tricky substitute Hatem Ben Arfa, who played into the right-footer’s hands by repeatedly cutting inside – until deep into stoppage time, that is, when the Frenchman teased in a curling cross from which Cisse scored the winner.
Central midfield is one area bypassed by the ill-advisedly sweeping summer changes bemoaned by Holloway. At best a bit-part player for Fulham, South African Kagisho Dikgacoi has established himself as Australian captain Mile Jedinak’s regular partner in the Palace engine room. While the pair have provided the defence with protection and the attack with a solid platform on which to build, they don’t offer much in the way of creativity. The contrast with their opponents was stark. Man of the match Cheik Tiote may be the home side’s destroyer, but he nevertheless ensured he was always in space and available to receive the ball, and had several efforts on goal, including a stoppage-time blast that smacked Julian Speroni’s crossbar. Alongside him, Vurnon Anita busily prompted and probed in a creditable attempt to paper over the cracks left by the sale of Yohan Cabaye in January.
Such is the quantity of attacking midfielders at Pulis’ disposal that his formation of choice is not the rigid, old-fashioned 4-4-2 he deployed at Stoke but the 4-2-3-1 currently favoured by Chelsea. However, it’s far from clear to him (and me) who his best trio might be. January signing Joe Ledley was unimpressive, and Puncheon – recently fined for mouthing off about Neil Warnock on Twitter, something that should be rewarded not punished – was quiet, not afforded the opportunity to launch another spot-kick into the stratosphere as he did at Spurs. Both Bannan and Guedioura came on to no great effect, while Tom Ince didn’t make it off the bench. Ince had his pick of lower-half Premier League teams in January so Palace must have been delighted to get his signature, and, like Ledley, he scored on his debut as they beat West Brom; but he hasn’t yet become the hero the faithful were craving, hauled off at half-time against Swansea and dropped for the match against Southampton.
The real star of the show as far as Palace were concerned was the only forward to start who came up with the club from the Championship. While it must be galling for Palace to see former favourite Wilfried Zaha lining up for their relegation rivals Cardiff, Yannick Bolasie has been able to step out of his shadow. Pace is his chief asset, more than enough to frighten Yanga-Mbiwa and Paul Dummett on the other flank, and he was certainly more direct than the route he took to the Premier League. Us home supporters couldn’t quite believe our luck when, having come closest to giving the visitors the lead with a shot that flicked the top of Krul’s bar, he was withdrawn.
Up front, Palace have problems. Marouane Chamakh has morphed from the daftly-coiffed showpony he was at Arsenal into someone who can actually score goals, but is injured – as is £6m speed demon Dwight Gayle who, like Bolasie, has gradually climbed the league ladder for his shot at Premier League defences. That meant Glenn Murray’s return from a long-term injury sustained in the play-off semi-final was particularly timely; he scored thirty goals last season, so there are hopes he might take to life in the top flight with the same ease as other players in a similar mould, such as Grant Holt and Rickie Lambert. The ex-Brighton man had to be content with a substitute’s role, though, Pulis preferring loanee Cameron Jerome as his solo frontman. That pair’s reunion must have been decidedly frosty, given the striker’s sharp comments about his former manager at the Britannia, but the hatchet appears to have been buried and Jerome was bustling and hardworking, running the channels to good effect and keeping Mike Williamson and Fabricio Coloccini occupied.
Nevertheless, neither he nor his replacement Murray could score, and the Eagles drew a blank for the third consecutive game. While Cisse’s 94th-minute headed winner was perhaps harsh in terms of the timing, it was arguably merited on the balance of play, punishment for Palace’s lack of ambition. The game was clearly there to be won but, unlike Fulham the previous weekend, they never seized the opportunity.
The same charge certainly couldn’t be levelled at Pulis’ men on Saturday, when they upset the odds and capitalised on a distinctly sub-par performance from Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. While the players’ work rate and determination were phenomenal, up against the side that was at the time top of the league, they still had to rely on John Terry to score the decisive goal. The three points have given them a fighting chance of staying up, but there remains much hard work to do.
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So which club has the most to fear from relegation? Instinctively, you’d have to say Fulham. The average age of their squad would necessitate an almost complete rebuild, and Shahid Khan may not have the appetite or patience to continue to bankroll a Championship side. Losing their top-flight status for the first time since 2001 would probably mean they would disappear even further into the long shadows cast by nearby Stamford Bridge. In many ways it’s remarkable they’ve survived this long.
Palace, by contrast, pitched up in the Premier League against the odds, and back in August many fans would, I suspect, have seen survival this season as just as much of an unexpected though pleasant surprise as promotion was last. However, the board haven’t been shy in sanctioning relatively substantial transfer fees for the likes of Gayle and Ince, and the club’s overall spending level suggests a determination to insure against demotion. Should that short-term strategy fail, it could prove extremely costly in every sense.
Fulham host Palace on the final day of the season. It promises to be quite a game.