As pleasing as the performances have been since Rene Meulensteen replaced Martin Jol at the start of the month, they haven’t managed to improve the perilous predicament that Fulham found themselves in after their annual horror show at West Ham. Just a single win – against an Aston Villa side whose slide from the heady heights of an August win over Arsenal – means that the Whites are now marooned in the bottom three, with only sorry Sunderland below them. For the all the effort and endeavour that went into creditable showings at Everton and at home to Manchester City, a shaky defence shipped another eight goals and showed little sign of the cohesion necessary to deliver another Great Escape.
There was always a sense, even if Jol had remained in charge, that Fulham’s season might be defined by the outcome of two festive season tussles at Norwich and Hull. One of the ironies of this campaign has been that Fulham have performed better on the road than at Craven Cottage – now more of a ransacked ruin than the fortress it once was – but the difference has hardly been marked. The optimism offered by the opening day success at Sunderland didn’t take long to dissipate, whilst, on reflection, what appeared a comfortable win at Crystal Palace was secured by two sublime strikes shortly before half-time.
Meulensteen spoke of the confidence and belief that Saturday’s showing against Manchester City provided – but was realistic enough to concede that it is results that matter at this stage of the season. To that end, history suggests it might be fortuitous that Fulham are heading for Norfolk on Boxing Day. Fulham haven’t lost this fixture since 1986 – a run of twelve games, in which they’ve scored 26 goals. Chris Hughton’s side, however, are strong at home: the Canaries have lost just three of their seventeen league fixtures at Carrow Road this season and are on a three-match unbeaten run that has released some of the pressure on another manager who has been looking over his shoulder lately.
Norwich sit six points above the relegation zone, but nobody’s breathing comfortably. Hughton has had to defend his tactics, including the decision to operate with just a lone striker at times when he could call upon the likes of Van Wolfswinkel, Hooper, Elmander and Becchio. The locals point to a lack of an attacking threat, but Hughton highlights the steady improvement since October and how Gary Hooper has gradually managed to reproduce his Scottish goalscoring exploits south of the border. Hughton will hope that the influential Jonny Howson passes a late fitness test on his injured back, whilst Russell Martin is expected to return from an ankle problem to bolster a defence that kept a clean sheet at Sunderland on Saturday.
Meulensteen’s main worry since replacing Jol has been injuries. He’s hardly been able to field a regular back four and, with injury ruling Philippe Senderos out of the festive fixtures, is down to just two fully-fit centre backs in Aaron Hughes and Fernando Amorebieta. Hughes, so dependable for so long, was at fault for Manchester City’s fourth goal at the weekend, whilst Amorebieta has taken some time to get to grips with the pace and physicality of the English game since arriving from Spain in the summer. Meulensteen has sought to lessen that defensive frailty by employing a midfield trio who don’t lack desire but do come with a combined age of more than an hundred. It’s little surprise, therefore, that Fulham collapse so frequently late in the proceedings.
Adel Taraabt operated impressively as a false nine against City, but Meulensteen will hope that Dimitar Berbatov passes his own fitness test on an injured groin. If the Bulgarian is fit enough to start against Norwich, it will be interesting to see whether the enigmatic Moroccan is rewarded for his best showing in a Fulham shirt – or whether artistry takes a back seat to grit and determination. You would reckon that Fulham will need more than a bit of both to survive this season.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Stekelenburg; Riether, Riise, Hughes, Amorebieta; Sidwell, Karagounis, Parker; Dejagah, Taarabt, Berbatov. Subs: Stockdale, Richardson, Zverotic, Kasami, Kacaniklic, Ruiz, Bent.