Make no mistake, Stoke City away this afternoon, is a massive game for Mark Hughes. A few Fulham fans voiced their discontent with the side’s dismal form at the conclusion of the desperate defeat by West Ham on Boxing Day and, given Mohamed Al-Fayed’s form for firing relegation-threatened bosses, the chorus could grow louder should the Whites come away from the Britannia with nothing later today. Today’s Telegraph says Hughes hasthree games to save his job.
The omens aren’t particularly good. I’ve grown tired of writing about Fulham’s wretched away record – we all the grisly details – and, on our last trip to Stoke, we saw fit to give our out-of-form hosts a three-goal start. More worrying than that is the mood in the camp. Sunday’s capitulation from a position of strength against the side that were then propping up the league can’t have done much for male and the gaps that appear with alarming regularity in what was once a miserly defence are more likely to trigger cardiac arrests than inspire confidence. Aaron Hughes started Boxing Day with his first goal for Fulham – a bullet header that looked like a timely tonic – but ended it with a mistimed clearance that epitomised all of our failings at the moment.
Fulham look terribly leggy and laboured just now – and that’s not something you can afford at Stoke, who for all their physically, are actually a much better footballing side that they are given credit for. The Potters are on a fine run of late, having lost one in seven since a dismal set of defeats back in the autumn and their latest success was an impressive dismantling of Blackburn at Ewood Park on Boxing Day. Tony Pulis has guided Stoke into the top half of the table with quiet assurance – they currently sit eighth in the table – and will be confident of adding to his side’s record of three straight wins over Fulham.
He will require late checks on the fitness of winger Matthew Etherington, who amazingly missed from a yard at Blackburn, and striker Jon Walters, but the bulk of a settled side should remain the same. Hughes would crave a semblance of that consistency, both in team selection and performance. There is certainly a case for wholesale changes to the side that surrendered so meekly to West Ham. Carlos Salcido still doesn’t look fully fit to me and was caught out of position on countless occasions on Sunday. The problem remains that we have scant cover at left-back: young Matthew Briggs was overawed at Arsenal and Chris Baird might well be a better option in central midfield, where the Etuhu-Murphy axis now appears ponderous where it was previously imposing.
Going forward, Fulham have looked toothless for much of the season, a situation not helped by the loss of Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele to serious injuries, but the decision to haul off Clint Dempsey with the team chasing an equaliser provoked serious dissent by Fulham standards. No matter that Eddie Johnson, who seems destined never to score a Premier League goal, actually looked quite lively after his introduction – surely his namesake Andy, whose slow return to match sharpness is painful to watch, could have been hooked instead.
Mark Bowen took to the airways after the West Ham defeat to suggest that Fulham fans had been too quick to condemn the manager. Hughes himself has spoken of his confidence that a bit of patience will see the ship steadied, but without results, he’ll find his time at the Cottage running out. Without the bulwark of our usually impressive home form, victories on the road become not just desirable but a necessity. Today would be a good time to start, but no-one will be holding their breath.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Baird, Hughes, Hangeland; Greening, Murphy, Davies, Duff; Gera; Dempsey. Subs: Stockdale, Salcido, Halliche, Riise, Kamara, A. Johnson, E. Johnson.