Too good to go down?
Each season in the Premier League there always seems to be at least one team dragged into the relegation mix that on paper has too much talent and quality to be in such a negative predicament. From West Ham of last season, who narrowly avoided the drop and even the Hammers team of 2003-2004 that went down, having talent on paper is not enough to avoid the drop down to the Championship and the loss of all the money that goes with it.
This season seems to be no exception to the rule with teams like Tottenham, Bolton and even Fulham hovering around the relegation zone over a third of the way into the season.
There already seems to be a significant gap between Fulham's 12th place position and that of Newcastle in 11th place. In fact, Newcastle are five points clear of the Cottagers and has a game in hand as well.
That being said, it is very likely that no team currently in 11th place or above will go down this season. That leaves nine teams as possible relegation candidates and it is my belief that three of those teams, Bolton, Tottenham and our beloved Fulham simply have too much talent to go down and will figure out a way to right the ship and avoid the drop.
On the other hand, teams like Derby County, Sunderland, Wigan and Birmingham City seem to have very little in the way of talent and are battling on heart and courage alone trying to tread water with the big boys of the Premier League.
Three of those four teams have named new managers over the last week with former Wigan man Paul Jewell named as Derby County's boss on Wednesday. However, it is hard for me to think that a new manager alone can change the fortunes and lack of talent that is apparent in all four of these teams.
While bringing in a new boss might be the quick fix, it is not the answer these clubs are hoping for. Paul Jewell is not going to magically make the Derby County players a talented group. He might be able to improve the quality of play somewhat, but the teams I mentioned above lack talent and quality and ultimately that is a major factor in determining wins and losses and who is relegated and who is not.
One might ask where Fulham fits into all of this over the course of the season. With a tough stretch of matches in December at Manchester United, at Everton and at home against Newcastle United, I would guess Lawrie Sanchez's team will drop a bit in the table before the always busy Holiday fixtures. However, over the course the remaining part of the season I think that Fulham are simply too gifted and too talented to be reeled in with the bottom feeders I mentioned above.
While Fulham's record may not be all that impressive, the fact remains that if matches were played over the first 45 minutes, Fulham would be top of the table looking down at every other team in the league. Unfortunately, matches are played over 90 minutes and Fulham have all too often squandered leads lost or drawn matches they should have won.
It is conceivable for fans of the Premier League to make a case that Fulham could and should be in the top half of the table. However, as it stands, the Cottagers are in 12th place just three points clear of the relegation zone.
While the results may not have gone Fulham's way most of the season, there is proof in the play of the Cottagers that this year's team is different than that of years past when Fulham was lacking the quality and depth needed to compete and succeed in this league.
Firstly, the defence for Fulham has stabilized a bit from last year to the present. Aaron Hughes has been a steadying force in the back and the improved play of Dejan Stefanovic in the centre of defence has given the Cottagers two experienced center backs that play no nonsense football for 90 minutes each match.
Additionally, the strong play of Clint Dempsey and Simon Davies in the midfield has given the Cottagers some much needed creativity in the centre of the park. All too often in season's past, there has not been much in the way of creating for others on the team, but with Dempsey and Davies on the pitch, there is always a scoring chance just around the corner.
Aside from that, one thing that Fulham has this season unlike season's past is pace. From Hammeur Bouazza, Seol Ki-Hyeon and even Clint Dempsey, Fulham finally possesses a few skilled players that can and will put the fear of God into opponents making run after run during matches.
I have been especially impressed with Bouazza in this department. He may not be the strongest with the ball at present time, but he has shown a number of brilliant flashes of his full capabilities and with his pace alone, the young 22-year-old Algerian should be a part of Lawrie Sanchez's starting XI week in and week out.
While I have highlighted the positive aspects of the team there are some negatives as well. Most notably is Fulham's inability to control possession in the midfield. Currently the Cottagers are having a very hard time stringing passes together and holding the ball throughout a match. This has caused them to be on the defence more often than they would like and in term has been one of the main reasons for conceding so many late goals. Opponents are simply pressuring Fulham into mistakes in the midfield and in turn are possessing the ball and attacking the Cottagers throughout most of the second half in every game this season.
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this problem that does not involve truck loads of money in the January transfer window. However, there might be some light at the end of tunnel in the form of fan favourite Jimmy Bullard who will be returning from a gruesome knee injury sometime in the New Year. Bullard has the midfield skills needed to vastly improve the team in this area and he showed those dazzling skills in his brief career as a Cottager at the beginnings of the 2006-2007 season before tearing up his knee less than a month into the campaign.
It remains to be seen exactly when Bullard will return to the pitch for match action but he is back in full training and that is a great sign for a Fulham team that could use his skills and leadership on and off the pitch to make sure this talented squad does not get buried in the relegation zone.
A lot can happen between now and the middle of May, but Fulham are a team that can and should be able to stay away from a potential relegation battle come the end of the season.
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