This might have been a fine sporting summer – Andy Murray finally triumphed at Wimbledon, the Lions saw off Australia down under and England retained the Ashes faster than anyone would’ve anticipated – but there’s a special sense of anticipation ahead of the start of a new football season. Fulham begin their 2013/2014 Premier League campaign at Sunderland tomorrow afternoon and, after the announcement of Darren Bent’s arrival on loan at lunchtime, there will be a palpable excitement amongst the Fulham fans making their way up to the north east ahead of the big kick-off.
Martin Jol has always been a footballing romantic, who promised to bring his own brand of total football to Fulham after replacing Mark Hughes at Craven Cottage. Some of his selections – and even signings – might have been hard to fathom, but as this excellent article on Football 365 earlier this week attested, Jol has stubbornly refused to retreat towards the conventional method of management. Throughout Fulham’s horrible winter slump, which saw the side come far too close for comfort to the scrap for relegation last season, there was a feeling that with Berbatov and Ruiz in the side, there were too many artisans and not enough grafters in the team. Jol might have recruited Derek Boateng to add a bit more grit, but he’s also brought in the mercurial Adel Taraabt, who he bought to English football when he was in charge of Tottenham. There can be no doubt that Jol’s attacking instincts will always win out. It’s a seismic change from the risk-averse years of Roy Hodgson.
Jol’s summer additions make it quite difficult to predict which eleven players will walk out to face a re-shaped Sunderland at the Stadium of Light tomorrow. Maarten Stekelenburg is certain to make his debut in goal after the departure of Mark Schwarzer, as a thumb injury appears to have ruled David Stockdale out of contention. Stockdale has spoken of his desire to challenge the Dutch international for a starting place, but the former Ajax custodian will be keen to revive his career after a disappointing spell in Serie A and starts the season as Jol’s clear number one. Fernando Amorebieta arrives with a real pedigree from La Liga and his height alongside captain Brede Hangeland should ensure Fulham are far less fallible in the air – a deficiency that has proven their undoing so regularly in the past.
Midfield is the intriguing area. If Jol persists with his favoured 4-3-2-1 formation, he’ll face some tough decisions. It looks like Steve Sidwell, who has seemingly atoned for his two dismissals that so infuriated Jol at the tail end of last season, will partner Boateng in central midfield. The dynamic between this two busy footballers – neither of whom are averse to putting their foot into a challenge – will be fascinating to watch. In pre-season, Sidwell has become more of the bustling, box-to-box midfielder that we saw in his earlier career, with Boateng assigned to a deeper, more disciplined role in front of the back four. The Ghanaian’s arrival will offer more protection for the defence, although should these two start together regularly, Fulham’s usual spot towards the top of the Fair Play table might be a thing of the past.
Ahead of the central midfielders, Jol has some decisions to make. Bryan Ruiz has divided opinion during his first two seasons by the Thames. Undoubtedly a gifted footballer, whose technical ability is on a par with anyone at the club, Ruiz’s detractors cite his inability to regularly grab a game by the scuff of the neck as the mark of someone who too regularly underperforms. I feel Ruiz gets a raw deal, but Jol’s decision to bring in Taarabt on loan is a direct challenge to the Costa Rican, who has previously been the sole contender for the number ten role behind a loan striker. Should he not perform, Ruiz could find himself shunted out to the wings or – worse – benched.
Jol’s task will be to find a way of fitting Taraabt, Ruiz, Bent and Dimitar Berbatov into the same side. Berbatov’s 15 league goals were priceless last season – they were probably the difference between a lower mid-table finish and relegation to the Championship. Unless Berbatov is to play in the slightly deeper that he fulfilled during his first few games with Fulham, Jol will need to change the system to accommodate his other loan signing alongside the Bulgarian in attack. Whether Bent, who trained with his new team-mates this morning, is fit enough to start against one of his old clubs tomorrow remains to be seen.
Bent will struggle to recognise Sunderland under Paolo Di Canio, though. The Italian has undertaken what he calls ‘a complete revolution’ of his playing staff, bringing in no fewer than ten new faces as he attempts to build on the momentum of last season’s exhilarating climb away from the drop zone. Vito Mannone, who starred in a narrow Arsenal victory at Craven Cottage in September 2009, should make his Sunderland debut in goal whilst the former Juventus winger Emanuele Giaccherini and American striker Jozy Altidore, who will hope to improve on his last Premier League experience with Hull City, should also start. Wes Brown and Steven Fletcher are sidelined through injury, whilst Craig Gardner is suspended.
Fulham have a good recent record at the Stadium of Light. The Whites are unbeaten in their last four visits, but did surrender a two-goal lead to draw at Sunderland back in March, and will look to be much tighter at the back on this occasion. The beginning of Jol’s bright new dawn isn’t far away – it should be a thoroughly absorbing ride.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg; Riether, Richardson, Hangeland, Amorebieta; Sidwell, Boateng; Dejagah, Ruiz, Berbatov; Bent. Subs: Etheridge, Hughes, Briggs, Karagounis, Duff, Taarabt, Rodallega.