Birmingham Preview

After last week’s disaster at home to Hull, it’s imperative that Scott Parker and his team get a result away to Birmingham tomorrow. With the rumblings surrounding Parker’s position, we are past the stage were he can get away with the team putting in a decent performance. He needs all three points tomorrow.

You can describe Birmingham’s season as being inconsistent. Seven wins, which is one more than Fulham have, go alongside seven defeats and a draw leaving them down in 12th. We are just one point better off than them in 8th, highlighting once again just how tight this Championship season is. They are in pretty good form with nine points out of the last 15 available, but they did lose last time out to Cardiff City.

Goals have been reasonably hard to come by for Birmingham with only 16 scored and with top scorer Lukas Jutkiewicz having just scored four. They’ll be facing us without captain Harlee Dean after he was sent off against Cardiff last weekend. Outside Dean and Jutkiewicz, a lot of the Birmingham squad are relatively unknown but we should be aware of 16 year-old Jude Bellington. We know only too well how exciting it is when you can include a youngster who has come through the youth system at a club. He may be just 16, but that doesn’t mean that he should be underestimated. He’s scored two goals from midfield this season and looks to be a real prospect.

For Fulham we will be missing Joe Bryan after he picked up an injury last weekend. Parker will have the same old question about who to start in goal with Marek Rodak available again after his one game ban for his red card two weeks ago. Bettinelli didn’t cover himself in glory up against Hull last weekend, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t get the nod ahead of Rodak. In the matches were Rodak has been included he hasn’t done anything for me to suggest that he is the stronger option. It’s an area that needs addressed in January, but maybe for now we stick with Betts.

Despite the fact that we have the league’s current top goal scorer in Aleksander Mitrovic, we haven’t managed to score in 3 of the past four games. We need to take advantage of the fact that Birmingham are without their main leader tomorrow and rattle them early on. The good news is that we haven’t went three Championship games without scoring since January 2015. We don’t have a great record against Birmingham though, with four losses in the past six meetings.

History and form aside, this is a must-win game for Fulham. We have dropped far too many points already this season, and the only reason we are still within touching distance of the top too is because no-one in this league seems to want to run away with it. It is still incredibly close, but soon the gap will be too hard to pull back. We are getting to the stage were Parker’s job is on the line. Hopefully he has enough in his locker to get him through this.

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Stick or Twist?

It’s that time of the year again. You know the time when nothing seems to go right for Fulham? The loss at home to Hull City was for me the poorest result of the season, not because of the scoreline but because of the absolutely dire performance that went along with it. Something just wasn’t right, and it’s been that way for at least the last few games. Scott Parker is in a bit of a predicament. His style of play has come under fire in recent weeks, but he has hit back suggesting that he won’t be changing his ways anytime soon.

I can understand why Parker wants to stick with his philosophy. He is a real student of the game, and won’t have committed to a style without a great deal of thought, but his approach still needs some work. We have seen it work, the results against Millwall and Reading being the two most recent examples, but we have also seen too many occasions where it has been a disaster. On Saturday at home to Hull, we had 75% of the possession yet had one shot on target. When you have the talent of Tom Cairney, Mitrovic, Bobby Reid etc in your side it’s criminal to think that we forced the Hull keeper into a save on just one occasion. I can sort of understand what Parker is trying to do, but the team aren’t executing it properly. Whether that is down to what’s happening on the training pitch, or that other teams have figured us out, I’m not sure.

The question now around the fanbase is whether Scott Parker is going to last as Fulham boss. I’m still avoiding the ‘Parker out’ campaign, but I completely get why the question is being raised. I spoke with a work colleague recently who thinks that Parker has lost the dressing room. Shahid Khan was in town on Saturday, so if you can’t get the players motivated to play well in front of the boss then when can he motivate them?

However, I just don’t think sacking him at this stage would be helpful. The performances need to start improving, but I think to change the manager now would just further disrupt the squad. When Slavisa Jokanovic started slowly, a lot of people wanted him gone, but they stuck with him and it paid off. We are only 15 games into a very long season, and we know that things in this division can change so quickly. There are only 8 points between first place and twelfth, with no team really running away with things so I’m not going to take the doom and gloom approach. I believe that sticking with Parker for now would be better than causing more disruption to the squad. I think that he will have had an impact in the likes of Cairney and Mitrovic staying. And let’s remember that he is still new to management and is learning his trade. Mistakes are going to happen early on, yet we are still doing enough to still be in contention for promotion.

Let’s keep the faith.

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Stoke Away Days

In recent history, Fulham generally haven’t had fun when we have travelled to Stoke. We have played away at the Britannia Stadium, or the Bet365 Stadium as it is now known, seven times since 2008, losing five times, drawing once and winning once. One of those defeats was a League Cup fixture while the rest were in the Premier League. During their Premier League tenure Stoke became a side who no one liked facing. Well-drilled and defensive, they caused one or two upsets as well as generally becoming a very difficult team to beat. Our sole victory there in recent times was thanks to some Bairdino magic back at Christmas of 2010. Two ridiculous strikes from the Northern Irishman inside the first 10minutes helped us to a 2-0 win. Wonderful scenes.

One of the worst days for me as a Fulham fan was when our thirteen year term in the Premier League came to an end after a pathetic 4-1 defeat to Stoke under Felix Magath. That day was nothing short of a Fulham calamity in the way we were set up and the way we played. Yes, relegation was looking likely anyway, but that performance pretty much summed us up under Magath. For that to be our last visit to Stoke, it’s understandable why so many of us have bad memories and a feeling of unease when we look ahead to tomorrow.

But we are in a new era at Fulham. Yes, last season was rocky, but Fulham under Scott Parker and the ownership of Shadid Khan are a different force. We still have issues to sort out defensively, but we are a side who could feasibly take points off anyone in the division. We still have maturing to do under Parker, but our side consists of the talent needed to get promoted again. However, tomorrow is also somewhat of a banana skin. Stoke have had a horrible season and sit bottom of the table. They have taken one measly point out of a possible 18 at home with Nathan Jones under a lot of pressure at the helm. But fitting nicely with the Championship’s unpredictability, they did beat then leaders Swansea City away from home last time out. Classic Championship.

We are currently unbeaten in six league games, but draws are becoming far too frequent. If we want to go up automatically, we need to put teams at the wrong end of the table to bed comfortably. If you have watched much of Stoke this season you will know that defensively they have been all over the place. Jack Butland in goal is an England International, but he has made mistakes time and time again. Confidence is low in the Stoke camp. We know what that is like after suffering so badly last season and we know that once the heads drop, it’s very hard to get anything from a game. That’s what we need to do to Stoke tomorrow, make their heads drop early on. The longer they feel like they are in the game, the harder it will be for us.

We know that you should never underestimate a team struggling at the bottom of the table, but we should be targeting 3 points tomorrow. We can’t afford to slip up against the bottom placed team.

#COYW

Thoughts on Marcus Bettinelli

Yesterday’s result was for me the most disappointing of the season. That might seem a strange thing to say given that West Brom are, on paper, the best team that we have played against this season and will undoubtably be fighting for promotion come May. But with how the game went, I can only come away frustrated and disappointed. We were in complete control of the game against a very strong side, but have handed the Baggies a draw away from home on a plate. We have to learn from this, and quick if we want to stay within touching distance of the teams at the top.

The big talking point coming away from yesterday’s game, is whether or not we need a change between the sticks. Marcus Bettinelli hasn’t helped his cause so far this season. He has always been a decent shot stopper, but isn’t great in other areas. His distribution has constantly been called into question, and he is now making mistakes far too often, costing the team points. But before we start calling for his head, we need to look at things close up, and then look at things in from a wider perspective.

Close up-

Well it doesn’t look great, does it? A good corner into the right area, but why is he flapping at that? And why is he trying to claim a foul when Austin did what every front man in world football will do at corners? He just wasn’t strong enough, and his reaction has only made it worse. He has now come out and accepted the blame, and fair play to him for that, but really the mistakes need to be cut out.

However, while Betts made the error, there are a couple of other factors involved in this particular occasion. Firstly, why on earth do we not have a man in between Austin and Betts? For me, that’s a huge error in judgement from our defensive coaches if it was supposed to be like that. Of course West Brom are going to put Austin in there trying to put the keeper off, so why was Ream, or anyone not there to give him some sort of cover? Also, Mawson can’t come away from that scot free. He was supposed to be on Semi Ajayi, but he has let him run off him so easily. For a big lad, he sometimes doesn’t use his strength. So, while Betts has made the biggest error of all in this situation, he certainly wasn’t helped by his defence.

Wider perspective –

A lot of people won’t like this, but I think there are a vocal section of fans who don’t help the situation. At Barnsley away I was a couple of rows from the front and Betts was having abuse hurled at him from the word go. His distribution from the start was at it’s usual level, but a number of fans were on his back in a pretty abusive way straight away. This isn’t helping. Now, I know we have all paid hard earned cash to follow the team up and down the country so therefore have the right to express opinions, but for me there is a huge difference between that and just hurling abuse non-stop. If you honestly think that will encourage our players to up their game then you are mistaken. All it does is make the burden heavier and heavier, until someone will turn around and shout back, which is what I hear may have happened yesterday, although I can’t confirm that this. Another example is Cyrus Christie. When he came on against Nottingham Forest a few weeks ago we had some numpties booing him straight away. The guy looked terrified every time he got near the ball, and unfortunately as a fan base WE have to take some of the blame for that. It’s embarrassing.

I have no idea who we will start in goal against Sheffield Wednesday, but I do think that Rodak must be in with a chance. If Rodak does get the nod, then it should spur Betts on to up his game. Competition in that area of the pitch is important. But for us as fans, maybe it’s time to have a think about how we respond to whoever is on the pitch.

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Back to Business

With the first international break of the season complete, it’s time to get our minds focused again on Fulham. We had just the four first teamers in action for their countries in Mitrovic, Ream, Sessegnon and Christie and it looks as though everyone has come away unscathed. We’ll find out tomorrow if we have any other injury concerns, but I think that Parker has a squad with a full bill of health. Harry Artur is suspended, though, so we know already that he won’t feature this weekend.

We have our toughest match of the season so far coming up on Saturday. At least on paper, that is. West Brom have always been a tough nut to crack and now, under the leadership of Slaven Bilic, we are up against a side vying for automatic promotion. They are unbeaten this season in the league with three wins and three draws putting them in fourth position in the table. Last time out they came back from two goals down against Blackburn to win 3-2, so we know that this team has a bit of metal about them. Encouragingly for us, though, they have failed to keep a clean sheet this season, so with our front three of Mitrovic, Cavaleiro and Knockaert we should be able to trouble a leaky defence.

We’ll have to look out for tricky winger Grady Diangana, on loan from West Ham. The England U21 international has scored three goals this season and is the sort of player who gives defenders headaches. He, alongside Charlie Austin and Kenneth Zohore, will give us something to think about. The Baggies squad has a tonne of experience and know-how at this level, so we will need to massively up our game from the draw in Cardiff if we are to get anything.

Winning this game would send out the message that we are going to be fighting at the right side of the table come May. It will hopefully give us a better idea of where we are as a squad under Parker’s management. If I’m honest, I don’t think we have seen the best of this Fulham squad yet. OK, the Millwall game was special, but we need to be playing consistently near that level if we are to go up. Everything went right for us that night, but we are going to have very few games were that is the case. We still seem to start games slowly which is something that we desperately need to get out of our system. With the talent in our squad other teams should be shaking in their boots with the prospect of facing us, but everyone knows that defensively we aren’t as solid as we could be. This gives other teams hope against us.

I suppose the biggest question at the minute for Parker to be pondering is who does he play in goal. Marcus Bettinelli has been a great servant for this club, but I worry at the amount of mistakes being made in goal. While I still think that he is just going through a slump, and is a much better keeper than what he is showing at the minute, I can completely understand the calls to let Marek Rodak, our very highly rated number two, have a chance. I think Parker will stick with Betts for now, but I’d imagine that he doesn’t have too many chances left.

As I’ve said before, this will be our biggest challenge of the season so far. Hopefully at 1430 on Saturday we can just enjoy the rest of the weekend’s football after watching Fulham romp to another win.

#COYW