Must win games seem to come round earlier than usual these days. It used to be that managers were given a year – or two – to settle into a new job, evaluate the side and introduce their new signings. The pace just isn’t that leisurely in the Premier League nowadays. Steve Kean, once Fulham’s academy director and then Chris Coleman’s assistant, has been under pressure almost ever since he replaced Sam Allardyce at Ewood Park after Blackburn’s colourful new owners made the first of several surprising decisions. Martin Jol might not have reached the same level of scrutiny as Kean, who was predictably installed as the favourite to be the first manager removed this season, but his sluggish start at Craven Cottage needs arresting – and fast.
Fulham perhaps played their best football of the campaign up at Newcastle a fortnight ago but failed to take anything from the game. Alarming defensive lapses – and an anonymous attack – have eroded the pre-season feelgood factor within weeks of Jol’s arrival. The Dutchman did at least restore the natural order of things to Fulham’s back four up at St. James’ Park, although new arrival Zdenik Grygera may replace Chris Baird at right back this afternoon. The signing of Bryan Ruiz, whose transfer came at the end of a fraught deadline day, has at least given the Fulham faithful greater reason for optimism. The Costa Rican winger didn’t make it easy for us all though: there was a rumour he was headed to Newcastle late in the piece on deadline day and then his participation this weekend was placed in doubt by a delay to his work permit. Fulham rushed their fitness coaches out to Madrid to keep him in shape and Ruiz responded with six goals in three minutes during his first full training session.
Whether Ruiz will start against Blackburn later on today remains to be seen. He’s had only a handful of training sessions with his new team-mates but the temptation to throw the new signing straight in must be heavy. Jol’s side have looked woefully short of invention in the opening weeks of the season – lacking a goal threat at Wolves in particular – and Ruiz’s pace and trickery, although untested in the Premier League as yet, would certainly provide Bobby Zamora, who should return to the starting line-up after an ankle injury, with the kind of service upon which the Fulham talisman can feast. Jol will have to earn his money in deciding who should make way for Ruiz and which system would best suit his side. A form of the 4-2-3-1 upon which the new manager seems to have settled would allow Jol to shoehorn most of the club’s creative talent into one eleven, even if Moussa Dembele might have to start from the bench.
Blackburn will be just as desperate as the Whites to right their poor start to the new campaign. He’ll have his new signings to choose from as part of the match-day squad at Craven Cottage. Scott Dann looks a shrewd purchase to shore up the leaky Rovers defence and the former Birmingham man should go straight into the side alongside the powerful Chris Samba at centre back as Ryan Nelsen faces a fitness test on his knee injury. Morten Gamst Pedersen, a scorer at Aston Villa and frequent scourge of Fulham, is missing with a hamstring injury, whilst a similar problem could rule out midfielder David Dunn.
The rest of Kean’s summer arrivals are all available for selection. Jordan Slew, who was interesting Fulham at one point in the summer, and Yakubu arrived on deadline day to supplement Blackburn’s attacking resources. Montenegrin midfielder Simon Vukcevic came in without too much fanfare, despite a significant transfer fee, an eye for goal and a successful career on the continent to his name. He could make his debut against Fulham and add some more creativity to an already industrious Rovers midfield.
The Glaswegian has spoken in the run-up to this game about the happy memories of his eight years at Fulham, although many believe it was Coleman’s reluctance to replace Kean with a more experienced sidekick that hastened the popular former skipper’s departure. Kean will be hoping for a morale-boosting win, if only to convince those fans that have reportedly written to Venky’s asking the owners to show him the door that he deserves more time. Fulham will view this fixture as an ideal opportunity to kickstart their season ahead of two tough tests next week: Twente on Thursday and Manchester City’s visit next weekend. Anyone underestimating Rovers, though, should recall how close they came to leaving the Cottage with a point last season. It promises to be another nervy afternoon.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Baird, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy; Duff, Dempsey, Ruiz; Zamora. Subs: Etheridge, Senderos, Gygera, Sidwell, Kasami, Dembele, A. Johnson.