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Bullard loss will test midfield depth

It took Fulham eighteen matches last season to pick up their first away win of the season. Fortunately, Cottager supporters only had to wait two matches this season as Fulham knocked off Newcastle United in dramatic fashion on Saturday at St. James' Park.

Trailing 1-0 with ten minutes to go, things were not looking very promising for a Fulham victory. However, eerily similar to Fulham's lone away win of last season, the Cottagers found the back of the net not once but twice in the last ten minutes to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat for Chris Coleman and his Cottagers.

The win puts Fulham at 8th place in the table on seven points. Quite an impressive run of three games after the Cottagers were hammered in their opening fixture against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

While the victory was an encouraging sign of things possibly to come from the Cottagers in the 2006-2007 season, the win did not come without cost as arguably Fulham's best player, Jimmy Bullard, went down with a gruesome knee injury late in the first half that will keep him out of action for what the Fulham staff say will be a minimum of two months.

The injury, a kneecap dislocation, happened late in the first half when Scott Parker and Bullard were both going after the ball and Jimmy fell on is knee very awkwardly. For those who were able to see the match or watched the TV replays will know that it was a disgusting injury that you would not wish upon your worst enemy.

The pain one could see in the face of Bullard made not just Fulham supporters, but Scott Parker of Newcastle, very uneasy with things surrounding the injury.

Fortunately, the Cottagers were able to rally together after the injury and pick up the win, but moving forward in what will be a tough month of September, players will need to step it up in the place of Jimmy Bullard if the Cottagers are to have continued success and continue to climb up the table.

Since coming over from Wigan this summer, Bullard has quickly emerged as a fan favorite with a late successful penalty strike against Bolton and also the lone goal from a free-kick in the Cottagers first win of the season over Sheffield United in late August.

Not only was Bullard finding the back of the net, he was a menace to opponents in the center of the park where his ball-hawking skills and ability to win 50-50 balls made for the Cottagers to be more dangerous team because of his presence alone.

In a team that has lacked creativity and flair in the center of midfield, Bullard filled that bill and will be missed over the next two months.

Having explained to you what Bullard has meant to Fulham thus far in the first four matches, it goes without question that players for Fulham must step it up immediately to keep the positive momentum going for the club.

While it is easy to say players need to pick it up in Bullard's absence, the question remains, who will fill the large shoes of Bullard and lead this team in midfield?

The answer to this question will not come from one player alone but a string of players in the midfield. The logical choice would be for Papa Bouba Diop to push forward a little bit and pick up the slack being left by Bullard in the attack.

Since a strong opening campaign during the 2004-2005 season, Bouba Diop has been hampered by injuries and was mostly ineffective last season and thus far during the 2006-2007 season, the Senegalese international has not been the dominant force in midfield that Chris Coleman needs him to be.

We have seen Bouba Diop score goals in the center of the park against Manchester United and Chelsea, along with goals from set pieces in a match against West Brom in early 2005. If Fulham is to have any success without Bullard, Bouba Diop must remain injury-free and step up his game to another level.

In addition to Bouba Diop, another player who has the ability to create havoc in midfield is the oft-injured Claus Jensen. The Danish international has just recently recovered from a leg injury and will be in contention for a place in the team next weekend at White Hart Lane against Tottenham.

When healthy, Jensen has shown he has the ability to score goals and create chances for teammates with his strong skill on the ball and in his dispersal of the ball to his teammates in good, attacking positions.

While he does not possess the blazing quickness and strength of Bullard and Bouba Diop, Jensen is deceptively fast and has proven to be a player that can and will cause problems for teams during his time here at Fulham and in his previous Premiership stint at Charlton.

The problem for Jensen has been his inability to remain healthy and on the pitch. In the next two months in the absence of Bullard, it is vital that Jensen stays in the best possible shape and remains injury-free.

Chris Coleman and his Cottagers need Claus Jensen to be a vital part of the team in Bullard's absence and while it seems unlikely that Jensen can remain free of injuries through the middle of November, anything is possible.

Jensen has a lot to prove to the manager and supporters alike who have remained patient thrhough his many injuries. Jensen can repay the club with some strong performances in the middle of the park that keep Fulham moving in the right direction....up the table.

Another player coming off injury that might be able to fill the void left by Jimmy Bullard's injury is Simon Elliott. The New Zealand international is ready to return after a leg injury during the preseason has kept him out of action for the Cottagers through the first four games.

Similar to Jensen, Elliott does not possess the most speed and quickness, but he does make up for that in smarts and positioning on the field.

Elliott has not had the injury problems that Jensen has, but he has not been injury-free since coming to Fulham from the Columbus Crew in January 2006.

While many thought Elliott would see limited playing time last season after his arrival, they were wrong. Elliott stepped right into the midfield in Papa Bouba Diop's absence and helped the Cottagers continue their strong home form at Craven Cottage.

The area where Elliott can give Fulham a boost is in set pieces. As witnessed last season, when healthy and on top of his game, there are not many players in the Premiership that can deliver set pieces the way Elliott does.

Whether it be a corner kick or a free kick from distance, Elliott has shown he can deliver the ball in attacking areas for his teammates to get on the end of and potentially score.

Without Jimmy Bullard's scoring, the Cottagers will need all the help they can get in finding the back of the net. It is hoped by Chris Coleman and his staff that an injury-free Simon Elliott can give the Cottagers a boost in the midfield over the next few months.

Another player that might be able to anchor the midfield in the absence of Jimmy Bullard is Michael Brown. The feisty 29-year-old midfielder has been played on the right wing in the first four matches of this season, but with the arrival of Wayne Routledge on loan from Tottenham, Brown will now have the opportunity to play his natural role in the center of midfield.

Routledge proved to be very effective against Newcastle on Saturday and because of that, Chris Coleman can feel comfortable moving Brown to the middle of the pitch to shore up that part of the team for Fulham.

While Brown has not scored any goals since coming over from Tottenham last January, he has shown throughout his career at Tottenham and Sheffield United that he can and will score some goals from his midfield position.

Brown will likely have to stay on the right this coming weekend against Tottenham though as Routledge will be unable to play in this match because he can't play against the team that loaned him out.

Jimmy Bullard is quite simple not going to be replaced. He has shown already what a great player he is and what an astute signing he was the Cottagers this summer.

His injury on Saturday was devastating for not only Jimmy, but for Fulham supporters as well.

While the midfield might not be as strong without Bullard, Fulham does have some players capable of filling the large shoes of Jimmy. Claus Jensen, Michael Brown, Simon Elliott and Papa Bouba Diop will be under the microscope and expected to play bigger than they have thus far this season.

With two tough matches on the horizon at Tottenham next Sunday and at Craven Cottage on September 23rd against Chelsea, the Cottagers will have a tough time getting any points from those two matches.

However, with Tottenham struggling to find the form they had last season and Chelsea not playing with the dominance we have come to expect from the Blues over the past two and a half seasons, anything is possible over the next two weeks.

If the Cottagers can remain intact through these two matches, October promises to have more winnable matches. The Cottagers will travel to Watford and Aston Villa and play host to Charlton and Wigan before opening up November at home against Everton.

That being said, reports are saying Jimmy Bullard is targeting a return to action on November 13th at Portsmouth. If Fulham can play well in the seven matches Jimmy is out, confidence will be very high upon Bullard's return.

Fulham has done well in the early part of the 2006-2007 season. Seven points through four matches is a strong return. One of the main reasons for that eighth place position in the table has been because of Jimmy Bullard.

With Bullard now out, it is time for other players in the club to step up and help out the team in a time of need.

Perhaps the club will rally around Jimmy and his replacements and keep the ship headed in the right direction. These next seven matches will be big in determining what kind of strength and depth Chris Coleman and the Cottagers have in midfield.

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