Sanchez due a dose of reality
The fact that new manager Lawrie Sanchez is eyeing up a European spot after splashing £20.5million on new players says it all for Fulham this season. While it would be difficult to criticise a manager for trying to improve his squad, Sanchez is woefully wide of the mark if he thinks that Fulham can push for the UEFA Cup.
Ambition is no bad thing, but Sanchez will get a reality check when he comes face to face with the reality of managing the club in the Premier League. With an away game against Arsenal that could jar the ex-Wycombe boss back to earth in his first game, only then will Fulham be able to concentrate on their true goal - staying in the top flight for another season.
Fulham fans will be optimistic about the coming season, having seen a host of new players walk through the door. In total, seven new arrivals have been sanctioned by the usually miserly Mohammed Fayed and Sanchez has bought well in that he has gone for young players with a hunger to succeed. The fact that most of them have played together in the Northern Ireland set-up will do a lot for the team's ability to gel, although it does not guarantee immediate success.
Despite the Northern Irish successes in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, the side are still a fairly mediocre international team, although it is laudable that Sanchez has gone for players who 'know the English game', over expensive foreign imports.
David Healy, top scorer in the competition so far with nine goals, has been hit and miss in the Championship and has never made the step up to the top flight. However, he certainly has the potential to make an impression on the Premier League. Boasting an excellent turn of pace, Northern Ireland's highest ever scorer is not guaranteed a first-team place with Diomansy Kamara and Brian McBride looking likely to start the season as the striking partnership; but Fulham will feel they have got themselves a bargain, having only paid relegated Leeds £1.5million for his services.
Another striker to have suffered from inconsistency, Senegal international Kamara was on fire in the Championship last season, netting 22 goals for West Brom before making the move to Craven Cottage for an inflated £6million fee.
Kamara has not impressed in the top flight, most notably in a barren spell with Portsmouth, but could prove to be a useful foil for the power of American international McBride if he can get a few goals behind him.
The powerful American is one of the most under-rated strikers in the league and was integral to Fulham's creativity last season. His work rate and aerial prowess have impressed, and with Healy and Kamara alongside him, McBride could forge a useful partnership up front.
However, scoring goals was not much of a problem last season as Fulham were able to mix it with those in a similar position. Defensive frailty ruined their season and they conceded the most amount of goals in the league - one more than bottom club Watford.
Sanchez has attempted to solve the problem by bringing in Southampton youngster Chris Baird and Northern Ireland captain Aaron Hughes. The problem is that he has chosen to stick by some of the defenders who failed to impress last year. Signing Zat Knight to a new contract may prove to be a mistake, despite the tall centre-back's vast improvement before his jaw injury in January.
Veteran Ian Pearce has surely run his course in the first-team, although his experience could still prove to be useful in the squad; while Philippe Christanval has failed to convince anyone that he is worthy of a first-team berth and much will still rely on the free-scoring American Carlos Bocanegra.
Liam Rosenior and Moritz Volz should continue to fulfil their obvious potential by nailing down the full-back slots, with Paul Konchesky and Aaron Hughes proving good competition. Both are young and have a lot to learn, but they remain Fulham's best source of creativity down the flanks with Franck Queudrue having joined Birmingham.
Centrally, Steven Davis can be seen as a bargain for £4million after showing a great deal of potential in his first few seasons with Aston Villa. The decision to sign Davis and sell the volatile Michael Brown to Wigan was a bold one considering Brown was the Cottagers' captain last season; but was certainly the right one.
Brown's abrasive style of play, more suited to the lower leagues than the top flight, will not be missed and the 22-year-old Davis brings an added goal threat as well as creativity and strength to the midfield.
Without the influential Jimmy Bullard, who is still recovering from a cruciate knee ligament injury, Fulham will rely on Davis and Papa Bouba Diop to sure up the central midfield area. Bullard's absence still leaves a big gap in the side, especially when it comes to taking set-pieces and Sanchez will be keen for the charismatic midfielder to return as soon as possible.
On the flanks, American Clint Dempsey and new signing Lee Cook have a lot to prove, but should have enough to oust the inconsistent Simon Davies from the first-team. Responsible for providing the ammunition to the strikers, these two will have to play their socks off to make sure that Bullard's absence is minimised, although neither have much experience of top flight football.
In short, Fulham have a fair few 'nearly-men' who could either set the league alight or slink back into obscurity. Improving their squad depth on last season, it is still hard to see the club finishing anywhere above mid-table given their defensive woes.
Sanchez has made it clear that the club will be employing long-ball tactics this season, to the dismay of the likes of Queudrue and Claus Jensen (who was released after expressing his disapproval at the new system); and compromising some attacking flair may go some way to strengthening the defence in the future.
However, despite having the basis of a good young side, Sanchez's lofty ambitions may see the side come crashing back to earth when reality sets in.
While this season may not offer much of a turnaround from last year's relegation battle, if the club can hold on to some of their standout players then they will surely improve over the coming seasons.
With a further injection of cash and some defensive improvement, Fulham could well be challenging for Europe in two years time - but not this season.