Don’t be fooled. This afternoon’s trip to Tottenham Hotspur has plenty riding on it. The hosts will want to end their worrying end-of-season wobble and clinch a precious Champions’ League spot. Harry Redknapp will want to recover from the obvious shock of being overlooked for the England job by proving he can still do the business at the top level of domestic football. Fulham have a fair bit to play for too. Martin Jol must still be hurting from his cruel dismissal by Daniel Levy and his side have recorded top four form of their own since the turn of the year. Victory at White Hart Lane, something the Whites haven’t managed since 2003, could match the club’s highest-ever Premier League finish of seventh and help amass Fulham’s best ever top flight points total.
It would also ensure that the regulars down at Craven Cottage end a transitional end on a real high. Plenty of doubts abounded about Jol when he came in and promptly dismantled a settled central defensiveness partnership and loosened some of the shackles applied by Roy Hodgson. Regimented discipline was out, a very continental freedom of expression was ushered in. The likes of Moussa Dembele, given freedom to roam from midfield, and Clint Dempsey, who will miss out on the chance to cap a truly exceptional season with another goal due to injury, have flourished. Alistair Mackintosh’s most pressing job will be – together with Jol – to convince the dangerous duo that should remain at Fulham.
Younger talents have prospered as well. The emergence of Kerim Frei, with his boundless energy and unstoppable dribbling, and Alex Kacaniklic’s promotion to the first-team after a successful loan spell with Watford together with the undoubted potential of Matthew Briggs hint at some young promise prepared to mark its mark at the highest level. We might well see a bit more of them today. Jol’s freshening up of a side that sometimes seemed tired and one-paced is ever so welcome. Mixed in with the experience of Schwarzer, Hughes, Hangeland, Senderos (who for all the barbs has enjoyed an excellent fine full first-season in the side), Riise, Murphy and Duff it suggests there are exciting times ahead, especially if Fulham can conclude a permanent deal for the potent Pavel Pogrebnyak.
The chances of recording another away win to rival the recent victory at Liverpool must be slim, however. Spurs, with Aaron Lennon restored to full fitness and Luka Modric pulling the strings for the likes of Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart, have looked irresistible going forward at times this season. The chances of Emmanuel Adebayor signing off with a winner, Jermain Defoe firing a timely reminder to Hodgson or Louis Saha breaking Fulham hearts yet again must be high. Gaining something approach parity in midfield will be crucial and, for that, Jol will once again look to Danny Murphy, still the fulcrum of the Fulham midfield and unquestionably eager to prove a point against one of his old sides this afternoon.
Jol will receive a rapturous reception from the Spurs fans who remember just how close he got them to the Champions’ League. Many have said they’d welcome him back with open arms. But their shouldn’t be any scepticism about how well the Dutch coach has done at Fulham now. The side might have teetered a little close to the drop zone earlier in the campaign – and the memory of that agonising exit from the Europa League will take some time to fade – but there can be no doubt that his charges are heading in the right direct. Win, lose or draw this afternoon, Fulham will once again finish in the top half of the table – and Jol will have realistic ambitions of guiding them a little higher come August.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Diarra, Murphy; Kacaniklic, Frei, Dembele; Pogrebnyak. Subs: Stockdale, Baird, Senderos, Kasami, Duff, Trotta, Sa.