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May 2, 2014

Cruel Britannia?

The home of Stoke City will be the scene of Fulham's demise after 13 seasons in the Premiership should the Whites fail to win and other results go against them this weekend.

Just seven teams have a better record of longevity at England's top table, but it is called the elite league for a reason. And for the whole of this season, Fulham's play no longer warrants membership among football's aristocrats.

Incredible to behold, but the Whites have not managed a clean sheet on the road since the opening game of the season at Sunderland. And even that day Lady Luck smiled on Martin Jol's mismatched jumble of nearly men, strolling mavericks and yesterday's heroes.

All Fulham's woes were apparent as two crucial points were given up last week versus Hull City. Even this deep into his reign the lack of continuity in team selection has been alarming from Felix Magath. The German continues to clutch at straws -- three or more changes per fixture are the norm, with regular rotation from a bench that has rarely threatened to come on and turn a game.

Stack the cards as you will. I maintained last summer before a ball was kicked Jol's squad for the campaign ahead looked well short on quality. Consider the players drafted in at Jol's behest then and our position now.

Can anyone seriously argue the three biggest earners at the club have made a difference? Maarten Steckelenburg, Scott Parker and Darren Bent. Two are not considered first choice, while age has clearly caught up with England international Parker. He's arrived at the Cottage at least a year too late.

Fulham spent most of last summer being linked with wingers. Wilfried Bony was the front-runner. None was signed. Damien Duff was clearly finished in the eyes of everyone except it seems the manager and/or the board. Alex Kakaniclic has failed to progress, Ashkan Dejagah must be wrapped in cotton wool as he does not it seems have the stamina for a full 90 minutes. And the team has been devoid of a striker since Dimitar Berbatov threw in the towel. Kostas Mitroglu may feature, say the papers? I can't even get excited this late in the season, and I must insist on a birth certificate to accept it really is our record signing.

Forty-two players have been tried, not to mention a small battalion of managers, advisors, coaches and technical experts. It has all resulted in a dish most supporters could have supplied from their own garden. A can of worms. And poor Shad Khan could have kept his money on deposit.

Fulham to pull off a shock win at Stoke City, with Mark "win at all costs" Hughes looking to guide Stoke to their best-ever finish in the Premier League? The well-drilled City giants and masters of the set plays against a side who simply cannot defend?

I cannot see it myself, especially without leading scorer Steve Sidwell, who has not pulled on a boot all week. The record books say the home side always wins this fixture. Fulham managed it at home thanks to a rare finish from Darren Bent late on.

To put a positive spin on it, a Fulham side turned up for this game in December 2010 with Mark Hughes at the helm and under pressure after a home loss to bottom team West Ham. That misty day in the Potteries an early brace from unlikely hero Chris Baird gave the Whites a 2-0 win and Fulham moved out of the bottom three and turned a corner. Will the tale be retold Saturday this time for the benefit of Felix?

My head says no, and even a win here will still leave the Cottagers' status in jeopardy on the final day. Others have been pulling results out of the fire, while Norwich and Aston Villa are increasingly looking like dead men walking. So it's not over quite yet. We know Fulham don't have the skill factor. Confidence surely has drained away since the Hull surrender. But does the team still have the bottle for it? We long-suffering supporters will know by 5 p.m. on Saturday night. COYW!