Fulham striker Hugo Rodallega says The Cottagers can be the surprise of the season.
He sees no reason why Fulham cannot stun their rivals to reach Champions League, starting with City tomorrow.
When Hugo Rodallega suggested securing a place in the Champions League ought to be within the scope of Fulham’s ambition this season, it was important to check that nothing had been lost in translation.
Rodallega, not a single hair out of place among those trademark braids and a tight tee-shirt revealing the outline of a lean torso, was relaxing after the last intensive training session before tomorrow’s Premier League clash with Manchester City at Craven Cottage.
Maybe the Colombian was a little too relaxed. After all, with an interpreter helping with his Spanish, this was Fulham he was talking about. The friendly little club down by the Thames, traditionally content to celebrate Premier League survival and whose fans are still wondering if that joyous march to the Europa League Final two-and-a-half years ago was just a dream.
But a glance at the Premier League table five games into the season shows Fulham a high-flying sixth, one place above Roberto Mancini’s cash-rich City for whom the Champions League is a necessity, not an aspiration.
At this point last year, Fulham had not won a game. That was when they were playing to type. This season Fulham are a different proposition.
Rodallega, a canny summer signing by manager Martin Jol after the striker’s contract with Wigan had expired, said: “I didn’t expect this at all. It is a good surprise and I hope we can continue this trend.
“With how the team have been playing at the start of the season, we’re very ambitious. The supporters feel it, the club feel it, and that is important for us players.
“We want to do more than just stay up. We want to change the history of the club and who knows what can happen? Maybe we can be the surprise of the season. Maybe we can get into the Champions League. We want to leave our mark.”
The Champions League? Really? Our Spanish interpreter, who happened to be a Barcelona fan and so knows all about the tournament, was prompted to ask Rodallega if he was serious.
The absence of a smile confirmed the 27-year-old was definitely not joking. “We want to be the best we can be,” he said. “If that means qualifying again for the Europa League, that’s great. If it means the Champions League, even better. We have trust in the club, we have confidence in the club, so we are willing to fight for it. It will be a very long season but we certainly have good players to aspire for something big.”
Before Rodallega made his Fulham debut as a substitute in the season-opener against Norwich, it looked like the loss of some very good players – Mousa Dembele, Clint Dempsey and captain Danny Murphy were either gone or in the process of departing – had already dealt a death blow to any European aspirations Fulham may have harboured.
But a debut brace by Mladen Petric in the 5-0 romp over Norwich, along with the two goals by Dimitar Berbatov in his first start for Fulham against West Brom, suggested that Jol’s new boys could compensate for the high-profile exits.
All it needed was for Rodallega to show the form that saw him hit 24 goals in 92 League games for Wigan. It was a long time coming. Five appearances came and went without a goal and ahead of last Saturday’s game at the South American’s former club, Jol admitted that he had to make a big decision over whether to start with his misfiring star.
Jol decided that the player would be inspired by his return to the DW Stadium and his faith was rewarded with Rodallega’s first goal for the club.
Rodallega said: “I’d had my chances before that game but they just didn’t go in. It did worry me a bit, especially as my team-mates Damien Duff, Petric and Berbatov were scoring goals. But now I have got my first one, I just want to score more.”
The partnership with Berbatov, who is being used in a roving role which produces both goals and assists, looks promising. Rodallega said: “Berbatov is an experienced player who has been at amazing clubs such as Manchester United and Tottenham. That inspires me to play.
“I want the combination to work as good as possible. I know the loss of Dempsey and Dembele was a big thing but with my partnership with Berbatov I want to make up for that loss.”
Tomorrow’s game against City will indicate whether Rodallega’s ambitions have real substance. He said: “We all know the players they have but there’s no reason why we can’t get the result that we want.”