December Woes

My Uncle asked me recently what life was like as a Fulham fan right now and the only word that came to mind was, “Grim.” I’m pretty sure that I thought the Premier League would be much more fun than it has turned out so far. If the increase in prices wasn’t bad enough, we have had to deal with some abject performances from a team that promised so much. We find ourselves in danger of being bottom at Christmas, something that teams rarely survive from. It’s going to take one momentous effort from the squad to get us out of this mess, and we as a fan base need to keep up the support.

I do believe that the team has looked much more organised under Ranieri, and 4points from four games isn’t bad considering we have been away to Chelsea and Manchester United in that time. The games between now and the end of December could either give us the hope that we need, or could essentially relegate us. There are no easy games in this league, but being at home to West Ham, Huddersfield and Wolves alongside a trip to St James Park to face Newcastle is a run of games that could take us off the bottom of the table. It’s an opportunity that has to be taken if we are to stay in the Promised Land next season.

Unfortunately for us West Ham have come in to a little run of form of late and have found there scoring boots. They have already scored 12 goals in the month of December with three in each of their wins over Newcastle United, Cardiff City and Crystal Palace, so we can expect our defence to be tested. It doesn’t bode well for a side still yet to keep a clean sheet this season. Another concern is that those 12 goals have been scored by five different players, none of which are Marko Arnautovi?, who has for so long been West Ham’s main threat. They have quality throughout their squad so there is no room for the silly mistakes that keep hampering our progress.

Ranieri made five changes last time out but I’m not sure that anyone would say that it worked. Denis Odoi was poor at right back while Tim Ream just doesn’t look Premier League ready. Hopefully Chambers will have gotten over whatever kept him out last weekend because he has been one of the positive things about Fulham over the past few weeks. Anguissa will be suspended but his performance wasn’t anything to shout home about so I’d imagine he wouldn’t have been in Ranieri’s plans any way. The next four games need to give us a spring board to something that Ranieri can work with over the January transfer window. It will be easier to attract players if we can show that we have a bit of fight about us. I think little Freddie here has the right idea…

All in all we need some Christmas joy around the Cottage, and soon. Grim times can turn very quickly into joyous times in football. Saturday night is huge.

#COYW

Match Preview – Fulham v Leicester City

Fulham’s home form for the remainder of the season will no doubt decide whether the Whites are able to stay up this season. Tonight’s match against Leicester will provide a good test for the squad who have shown signs of improvement and competitiveness in both of the matches under new manager Claudio Ranieri.

The Italian has just a single injury concern after second half substitute Floyd Ayite picked up an injury in the SW6 derby on Sunday. Tonight’s game will be the first time Ranieri has been able to pick from a virtually fully fit first-team squad since he took over and it will be interesting to see who starts in midfield. The drafting in of Stefan Johansen to midfield after Andre Schurrle pulled out on the eve of the Chelsea game didn’t really work and you would expect the German World Cup winner to regain his place in the starting line-up. Who fills one of the deep-lying holding midfield slot is a fascinating question. Kevin McDonald hasn’t had much of a look in or late, whilst Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa marked his return to training with a long-range screamer.

The revelation in recent weeks has been the form of Calum Chambers. So abject just a few weeks ago at right back in the devastating defeat to Cardiff, the Arsenal loanee has returned as an all-conquering defensive midfielder. Slavisa Jokanovic played him there at Anfield where Chambers added a bit of much-needed bite to a previously rather feeble Fulham midfield and he has gone on since then. His performance at Stamford Bridge was by far his best in a Fulham shirt – it was just unfortunate that the clearest chances fell his way on a day when the Whites were in the derby for long periods but couldn’t find a goal.

Tonight’s visitors Leicester have a few injury concerns of their own. England World Cup hero Harry Maguire and Rachid Ghezzal will reportedly not be travelling down to London for the game, whilst star striker Jamie Vardy could be facing a late fitness test. The Foxes will be looking for their second victory in the space of four days at the expense of Ranieri, who guided them to that shock league title win in the 2015-16 season. With Leicester proving hard to beat as of late and us trying to adapt to Ranieri’s way of football, I full expect a tough game tonight. I do however expect to see goals and I am hoping Aleksander Mitrovic can be the difference between the two sides.

Prediction: Fulham 2-1 Leicester City

Feisty Fulham fall short

Looking at the scoreline, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this SW6 derby proved to be a Sunday lunchtime stroll for Chelsea. It looked like it could have been when Pedro capitalised on a shocking defensive error to give the home side an early lead, but you could tell from the regularity of Maurizio Sarri’s second half prowling that their slender advantage was far from comfortable. Claudio Ranieri couldn’t claim a point on his return to Stamford Bridge, but the hosts needed the cushion of a late Reuben Loftus-Cheek strike to be certain of all three points.

Fulham began with an early demonstration of their ambition with Cyrus Christie, who had an excellent game in shackling Eden Hazard, galloping into space down the right flank and firing a speculative shot towards the far corner. It lacked power and Kepa Arrizabalaga was able to easily get down and gather it in. The Whites, roared on by a raucous travelling support, soon shot themselves in the foot, however, with Denis Odoi and Jean-Michael Seri getting in a terrible mess in central midfield. Seri failed to release a pass from the Belgian defender swiftly enough, allowing N’Golo Kante to swoop in, sweep up field and play the perfect pass for Pedro, who ghosted inside Alfie Mawson and measured a perfect finish inside the far post.

The visitors could have been overwhelmed by the grievous nature of the goal they had conceded with just four minutes on the clock, but they continued to patiently probe in front of the Chelsea defence. Tom Cairney created an opening for Calum Chambers, who was superb throughout in the holding midfield role again, but the Arsenal loanee’s drive from distance was straight at Kepa. At the other end, Sergio Rico had another fine game in the Fulham goal – making two splendid reaction saves from Oliver Giroud as the first half drew to a close to keep his side in the contest.

Ranieri was decisive at half time and withdrew Stefan Johansen and Ryan Sessegnon in favour of Floyd Ayite and Aboubakar Kamara. Although an early opening came the way of Pedro, Fulham’s switch of both personnel and system enlivened them as an attacking force. Antonio Rudiger almost sent Christie’s cross into his own goal as he tried to keep it away from Aleksandar Mitrovic, before Kepa somehow kept out Chambers’ near post header from the ensuing corner. It was clearly not going to be Chambers day, when after a beautiful drag back on the edge of the box, he thumped an effort towards the far corner that was superbly pawed away by the Chelsea goalkeeper.

Rico did brilliantly to keep out an effort from Hazard that had taken a wicked deflection but he had no chance with the clinching goal, scored by substitute Loftus-Cheek, that settled the contest eight minutes from time. It owed much to Hazard ghosting away from a clutch of Fulham defenders after some excellent approach play on the edge of the box. The Belgian picked the perfect time to release Loftus-Cheek, who had escaped the attentions of Maxime Le Marchand, and the England international drove home at the near post.

Fulham continued to push forward in added time, but couldn’t find a route back into the contest despite efforts from Mawson, Christie and Kamara going close. Ranieri declared himself pleased with his side’s fight as well as their reaction to his half-time changes, but he will know that Fulham’s fate is highly unlikely to be settled by these sort of results and more in the fixtures like Wednesday’s, at home against another of his former clubs, Leicester City.

CHELSEA (4-3-3): Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Alonso (Zappacosta 78), Rüdiger, David Luiz; Kanté, Jorginho, Kovacic (Loftus-Cheek 67); Pedro, Hazard, Giroud (Morata 70). Subs (not used): Caballero, Christensen, Fàbregas, Willian.

BOOKED: Azpilicueta, Morata.

GOALS: Pedro (4), Loftus-Cheek (82).

FULHAM (4-1-2-1-2): Rico; Christie, Le Marchand, Odoi, Mawson; Seri; Chambers, Johansen (Ayite 45); Cairney (Kebano 76); Mitrovic, R. Sessegnon (Kamara 45). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Ream, Bryan, Cisse.

BOOKED: Odoi.

REFEREE: Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire).

ATTENDANCE: 40,551

Derby Day

The Claudio Ranieri Era got off to a great start last weekend beating fellow strugglers Southampton at the Cottage to ease the tensions at the football club. While we couldn’t say that it was a comfortable victory, we saw fight for the first time in months and that alone has brought fresh optimism to the banks of the Thames. We know that we have a squad filled with quality, and while it is really sad that Jokanovic just wasn’t able to make it click, Ranieri already looks to have invigorated the squad. It’s early days, but the signs so far are good.

Just 1.4 miles separates Craven Cottage and Stamford Bridge making Fulham’s trip to Chelsea on Sunday one of the shortest in the Premier League. Given that Cardiff, Southampton, Palace all picked up points on Saturday’s round of matches, it’s important that we are not blown away in this one. It’s not a must win game, but there is no question of it being an important game. Playing against your neighbours is always important and I won’t be the only Fulham fan who had this one marked out early when the fixtures were announced in the summer.

Chelsea are on a weird run at the minute. They flew out of the blocks under Sarri, but have now hit a bit of a road block with a 0-0 draw with Everton before being destroyed by Spurs last weekend at Wembley. They have already taken the first step in redeeming themselves with a comfortable victory midweek in the Europa League, but as it was essentially a meaningless game as they had already qualified for the next round, most of their fans will have been looking ahead to the next game in the league. We might be facing a Hazard-less Chelsea tomorrow with the midfielder still struggling with an ankle knock, plus we may see more of the fallout from the Kante saga, but all in all we face a very tough test tomorrow.

I’ve always had this West London derby on my bucket list so I can’t wait for the game tomorrow, and I can’t help but dreaming about getting something from it. It’s been almost five years since we last played Chelsea, and our last win was 12 years ago when Luis Boa Morte scored the winner at the Cottage 2006. You never know, we could have another hero tomorrow!

#COYW

Ranieri delighted with Fulham’s fighting spirit

Claudio Ranieri was delighted with Fulham’s fighting spirit after the Whites shrugged off the setback of conceding an early goal to beat Southampton and move off the bottom of the Premier League table.

The Italian admitted that his first game in charge of his new side was an emotional moment, but professed himself pleased with the focus and desire of his players. Ranieri felt that his team had made ‘little steps’ in terms of improving some of the problems that have dogged their faltering start to life back in the top flight, but recognised that Fulham’s first victory for more than three months will lift morale around the club.

He told his post-match press conference:

For me to come back to the Premier League is emotional. For me to come to Fulham is emotional. Emotions were high. It was an important match, and everybody is pleased, but it’s a little step – it’s not an easy job. I was waiting for this kind of match and it was very difficult. Southampton are a good team, and we’re in a bad position. We suffered a lot, but I’m very pleased with my players because they never gave up and fought.

We wanted to win, we showed very good fighting spirit, and our energy levels were high. I asked the players to fight until the end. After the first goal, I wanted to see our reaction and it was amazing. I’m very pleased with our fans too, they supported us until the end.

Ranieri was disappointed with the amount of scoring opportunities the Whites offered Southampton and lavished praise on Spanish goalkeeper Sergio Rico who pulled off a number of outstanding saves.

We played a good match but gave too many chances to our opponents. Of course, I want a clean sheet and want to improve our defensive work. The whole team has to maintain the right position. I always want more. Rico had to make too many saves and I don’t like it when our goalkeeper has to work too much.

He also had high praise for Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose double eventually proved decisive, and scotched any suggestions that the former Newcastle forward wouldn’t fit into his long-term plans.

For me, Mitrovi? is one of the best strikers in Europe. He’s only 24 and I think he can improve more and more. At the end of the season, you’ll see how many goals he’ll score.

Mitrovic brace gives Ranieri a dream start

A timely double from Aleksandar Mitrovic handed Claudio Ranieri a dream start to life at Craven Cottage as Fulham sneaked past Southampton in a five-goal thriller this afternoon.

Ranieri promised a more pragmatic style of football after replacing Slavisa Jokanovic with the aim of keeping Fulham in the Premier League and, whilst his new side looked defensively secure, their first victory in three months owed plenty to the attacking philosophy that the Serbian imbued in SW6. Their equaliser, after Stuart Armstrong had punished some slack defending, came from a flowing seven pass move down the left flank and Fulham’s third arrived after Cyrus Christie had surged deep into Southampton territory.

In such an open contest, it was likely that both sides’ defensive frailties would be severely examined. Fulham were indebted to another outstanding display of goalkeeping from Sergio Rico, who produced a splendid double save to deny Armstrong and Manolo Gabbiadini in quick succession, and continued to repel wave after wave of Southampton attacks. He could do little about their opening goal, when both Tom Cairney and Jean-Michael Seri switched off, allowing Nathan Redmond to reach Matt Targett’s throw. The winger was the visitors’ most potent threat all afternoon and, although Maxime Le Marchand got a touch to his cross, Armstrong tucked away a clinical finish.

Too often this season Fulham heads had dropped decisively after they had gone behind. It was the youngest member of the side, Ryan Sessegnon, who provided a spark with a determined run from midfield and a powerful shot that flew just over the bar. The teenager was heavily involved in the equaliser just after the half hour. Southampton stood off Sessegnon and he found Cairney, whose clever pass released Le Marchand, who has often appeared a reluctant left back. This time the Frenchman galloped right to the byline and produced a splendid cross which Mitrovic stooped to guide into the far corner.

Young Sessegnon was far from finished. He produced a tremendous run down the left, bamboozling Cedric Soares in the process. and delivered the perfect low cross for Andre Schurrle to tap Fulham in front at the back post. The ten minute turn around represented the first time that the Whites had led since going 2-0 up at Brighton on September 1st – and we all know how that ended.

The home side were penned back in the early stages of the second half as Southampton pushed forward. Ranieri’s men almost grabbed a third on the break when Mitrovic’s powerful low drive was expertly saved by McCarthy and the Saints went straight up the other end to equalise. A poor defensive header from Sessegnon allowed Soares to flick the ball into the path of Armstrong just outside the box and the Scot drove a thumping finish beyond even Rico’s grasp.

Once again, the desire of the league’s bottom side could have been called into question. Instead, Fulham stepped up the intensity and fought for every ball. Their determination was typified by Schurrle chasing a lost cause to the corner flag and forcing a frenzied clearance from Wesley Hoedt, which fell kindly for Christie. The Republic of Ireland international then deftly beat his man and swung over a high cross that was smartly flicked on by Sessegnon for Mitrovic at the back post. The Serbian swiftly readjusted his feet and volleyed splendidly into the bottom corner, leaving McCarthy rooted to the spot.

There was still nearly half an hour for Fulham to hang on – and the finale was terrifying and gripping in equal measure. Southampton rallied and probably should have claimed a point. Rico made two further excellent reaction stops, beating out a volley from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and then somehow foiled substitute Michael Obafemi, when he looked certain to score. In between, Obafemi somehow scooped a shot over the bar into the Putney End having beaten Le Marchand to a through ball. Five minutes of stoppage time seemed like a lifetime before Rico clung onto another Højbjerg effort and Michael Oliver finally called time on proceedings.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico; Christie, Le Marchand, Odoi, Mawson; Chambers, Seri (Johansen 68); Schurrle (Kamara 74), R. Sessegnon, Cairney; Mitrovic (Ayite 86). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Ream, Bryan, Kebano.

BOOKED: Mawson, Johansen.

GOALS: Mitrovic (32, 63), Schurrle (42).

SOUTHAMPTON (4-2-3-1): McCarthy; Soares, Targett, Yoshida, Hoedt; Lemina, Højbjerg; Gabbiadini, Redmond, Armstrong (Obafemi 81); Austin (Elyounoussi 68). Subs (not used): Gunn, Vestergaard, Stephens, Davis, Ward-Prowse.

BOOKED: Hoedt, Højbjerg, Obafemi.

GOALS: Armstrong (18, 53).

REFEREE: Michael Oliver (Northumberland).

ATTENDANCE: 24,603.