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Up next: Sunderland (a)

A tricky trip to Sunderland awaits for Fulham this afternoon with Martin O’Neill’s side desperate to drag themselves away from a relegation dogfight by ending their poor run of form with a win. Martin Jol has been at pains to point out that his side are by no menas clear of the drop themselves despite two successive clean sheets and an important win over Stoke last week and has set his players a target of reaching the forty-point mark as soon as possible.

Jol would dearly love to record a third away victory of the campaign at the Stadium of Light to add to the wins at Wigan and West Brom but his first focus will be to try and avoid the defensive mistakes that so hampered Fulham in their 3-1 defeat by Sunderland at Craven Cottage back in November. That was Sunderland’s first away league success in nine months – and the damaging defeat abruptly ended Fulham’s encouraging start to the campaign. Though the match – and arguably the trajectory of Fulham’s season – turned on the sending off of skipper Brede Hangeland, Fulham still fashioned plenty of chances but their visitors were far more clinical in front of goal.

That sort of sharpness in the final third has eluded Sunderland of late – and it might have been what prompted O’Neill to pair Steven Fletcher with Danny Graham up front for the first time in their 2-1 defeat at West Brom last weekend. That was the Black Cats’ third straight league defeat in a row – their worst run under O’Neill – and John O’Shea has urged his team-mates to discover the kind of consistency that will see them to safety. O’Neill chose to focus on the positives after the Hawthorns’ setback and was encouraged by the number of opportunities his side created against West Brom, which suggests he may field a similar 4-4-2 formation this afternoon. That could mean that Fulham’s defensive improvement could face a severe test against Fletcher and Graham, who have both scored against the Cottagers in recent seasons.

The hosts will be missing the bite of captain Lee Cattermole in central midfield, however, as O’Neill admits the former England under-21 international may need an operation to overcome his troublesome knee injury. Cattermole’s absence could see the Swede Sebastien Larsson pushed into central midfield or usher in a return to the starting line-up for the former Blackpool midfielder David Vaughan. Jol was waxing lyrical about his abundance of midfield options during yesterday’s press conference and Fulham do seem will served in the middle of the park after months of making do without Mahamadou Diarra. It will be interesting to see how the Dutchman decides to line  up at the Stadium of Light, with several players pushing for a recall.

The easiest option would be to field the same side that stoically saw off Stoke in the lunchtime kick-off last weekend. That would see Giorgos Karagounis and Steve Sidwell paired together in central midfield and the Greek veteran has certainly breathed new life into what looked a pedestrian midfield during Fulham’s barren midwinter run. Jol, however, has been talking up Emmanuel Frimpong in the build-up to this game, hinting that another physical contest could suit the Arsenal loanee’s attributes after his combative debut at Carrow Road three weeks ago. Alex Kacaniklic’s departure on loan to Burnley for the remainder of the season suggests that Jol sees Urby Emmanuelson as a more appropriate replacement for Damien Duff, whose Newcastle connections should ensure a hot reception on Wearside, although the Dutch international has impressed in two outings in central midfield as a substitute.

Jol will also have to decide whether to reward Kieran Richardson’s return to full fitness with a start against his former employers, although that would be harsh on John Arne Riise, who has improved greatly on his return to the side. The manager will likely keep faith with his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, with Bryan Ruiz operating just behind the mercurial Dimitar Berbatov in attack. The Bulgarian striker might have to reproduce the kind of finishing that saw off Stoke to beat Simon Mignolet, however. The Belgian goalkeeper was outstanding at Craven Cottage in the previous meeting between the sides and was named North East Football Writers Player of the Year this week – a fitting reward for a fabulous season. No wonder O’Neill’s so keen to tie him to a long-term contract.

MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Riise, Hangeland, Senderos; Karagounis, Sidwell; Dejagah, Duff, Ruiz; Berbatov. Subs: Etheridge, Hughes, Baird, Frimpong, Emmanuelson, Rodallega, Petric.

Richardson can prove a point at Sunderland

Kieran Richardson is ready to prove a point on his return to Sunderland with Fulham, according to his current manager Martin Jol.

The 28 year-old has struggled for form and fitness since leaving the Stadium of Light to return to London in August but Jol believes the versatile Richardson can recapture the displays that made him a Manchester United regular and won him six England caps. The Fulham manager will have a decision to make over the composition of his side this afternoon with Richardson available for selection again after spending a month on the sidelines – and it remains to be seen whether the former Sunderland man will be preferred to John Arne Riise at left back.

Jol has previously been quoted as saying that Richardson wasn’t sharp enough in the early stages of his Fulham career but he has supreme confidence in the versatile left-sided player – judging by the quotes from his pre-match press conference:

Kieran has been injured a bit but he is back now and will be involved in the squad. He is a versatile player who can play on the left, in midfield and left-back. He is a good player and has all the qualities. He had a good season with Steve Bruce at Sunderland when he was left-back, and should be terrific here. You can give him the licence there to express himself and he will be good, I have no doubt about that.

Richardson made 149 appearances – scoring fifteen goals – in his five years at Sunderland and is expected to be given a warm reception at the Stadium of Light. He has already made an impact with Fulham, scoring twice – his first goal coming as a substitute at Southampton and a long-range strike helping the Whites avoid FA Cup embarrassment at Blackpool.

Emanuelson seeking ‘redemption’ at Fulham

We got only the briefest of glimpses of Urby Emanuelson at the weekend. Havig gone through an extensive warm-up along the Riverside touchline, he was introduced as a late substitute for the tiring Damien Duff as Fulham strove to hang onto their slender lead against Stoke City. The Craven Cottage faithful saw Emanuelson in his natural left midfield role, as opposed to the central midfield position he had filled during his two previous cameos in a white shirt.

The Dutch midfielder was probably the biggest name to make a loan move to Fulham over the January transfer window as Martin Jol bolstered his midfield with a few temporary additions. Emanuelson has been adamant that he’ll return to parent club AC Milan come the summer – and he reiterates that position in a revealing interview with InsideFutbol. It’s clear he still feels he has unfinished business at the San Siro, having suffered through a tricky third season – spent mostly on the bench – at Milan and also wants to force his way back into the Dutch national side. What better way to remind everyone of his enduring ability than with a successful spell in the Premier League?

Even in his three substitute appearances, Emanuelson has quickly acclimatised to the major difference between the more cerebral Serie A and English football:

The main difference between this league and Serie A is the speed of play. Football in England is faster. Moreover, the referees are more tolerant, while sometimes in Italy it is frustrating to see the game stopped every minute because of a foul.

The Dutchman is also candid enough to admit that his move to London has made having to adjust to the fact that he’s dealing with a different kind of challenge for the first time in his career.

It is the first time in my career that I am at a club that does not play dominant football. Both Ajax and Milan were powerhouses in their countries, whilst Fulham have to face giants like Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. Against them you can try to play football, but you can’t dictate the game. I don’t see Fulham as a step back in my career. I am 26. I need to play. Fulham? It was a choice I made for my career.

Emanuelson’s history with Martin Jol might the only reason he’s ended up at the Cottage. Facing up to the reality of a fractured relationship with current AC Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri, he jumped at the chance of being reunited with a coach who helped him burst onto the European scene during his time at Ajax. The move might just prove mutually beneficial.

He was key to my move to London as I’d already worked with him before at Ajax. Under him I had one of my best seasons. He knows me and I needed a coach who believes 100% in my qualities. Tactically speaking, Jol has asked me to bring more creativity to the team, but at the same time I must take care of my defensive duties and keep the team compact. That’s fine by me, I am an all-round player and I have considered my versatility to be one of my strongest points. Playing a key role both in the defensive and attacking phase is the same thing I did at Milan. The only difference is, as I said before, that in England I have less time to close the space to my opponent or to put a team-mate through on goal.

Emanuelson’s cameos from the bench have whetted the appetite of Fulham fans eager to see what sort of impression he might make on the Premier League were he given a prolonged run of games in the side. The competition for places in the wide positions is fierce, with Damien Duff’s determination making him the first choice on the left and Ashkan Dejagah’s display on Saturday suggesting that the Iranian winger is right to make the right-sided spot his own. The most intriguing possibility is whether Jol could successfully deploy Emmanuelson as a deep-lying playmaker, like Mousa Dembele.

In that regard, Saturday’s three points – which inched Fulham closer to safety – could be crucial. Jol might be tempted to release the shackles over the closing weeks of the season, allowing his side, which suddenly has a collection of flair players, to play a more expansive game that would suit the talents of Emanuelson, Ruiz and Berbatov. If the Dutchman is keen to remind Milan of his ability, Fulham might be in line for an exciting end to their campaign.

Dazzling Dejagah stakes his claim

Rather like every other August arrival not named Dimitar Berbatov, Ashkan Dejagah’s move to Fulham didn’t raise too many eyebrows. For a while, the Craven Cottage faithful were treated to fleeting glimpses of the Iranian international, who didn’t exactly steel the show in his pair of substitutes’ appearances for Wolfsburg during Roy Hodgson’s side’s European run. Indeed, injuries restricted Dejagah’s first team opportunities at Fulham until the middle of October, when he stepped off the bench for the final twenty minutes of the last gasp victory over Aston Villa.

Unlike the centre of the park, wide midfield isn’t exactly a problem position for Martin Jol. Damien Duff’s sparkling form this season – scoring three goals and making eight more in the league – has been enough to earn him another contract extension and the evergreen Irishman shows little sign of slowing down, even if he was effectively nullified by Stoke City yesterday afternoon. Jol has also overseen the development of two of the most exciting young talents to break into the first team in recent years. Kerim Frei’s season has been regularly interrupted by injury, but he terrified enough full-backs during his debut top flight season to suggest that he’s got a big future in the game. Alex Kacaniklic’s progress has been just as swift – with his impact on Sweden’s sensational comeback against Germany this summer showing just how effective the winger can be.

Dejagah’s opportunites came initially in a flurry of cameos. There were high octane and energetic, with his direct running and pace, often adding a little bit of impetus late in the proceedings. The Iranian struggled to displace Duff from the side – and his decision-making in the final third was criticised as Fulham went on the miserable winter run that threatened to drag Jol’s team deep into a relegation dogfight. It was perhaps unfair to lay the blame for Fulham’s failure to find a cutting edge on the shoulders of a new signing still adjusting to the unique challenges of the Premier League, but as the past few months have proved, there’s little escape from scapegoating when things are going badly.

In Dejagah’s case, the brickbats always felt like a rush to judgement. In his angst to impress, the 26 year-old often appeared rushed and over eager, but there was clearly quality there. He demonstrated this in Fulham’s fine away win at in-form West Brom on New Year’s Day. Jol’s continental-style system had lacked wide players willing to attack their full-backs, but Dejagah tormented Billy Jones all afternoon – and made Fulham’s opening goal with a run of purpose, pace and power, racing onto a through ball from Giorgos Karagounis and providing the perfect cut-back for Dimitar Berbatov to finish a flowing counter-attack.

He’s not had the luxury of a run in the side – but that may change after the accomplished display during yesterday’s win over Stoke, which gave Fulham a little bit of breathing space and the first sight of mid table for the best part of a month. Dejagah’s purposeful running and interchanging with his former Wolfsburg team-mate Sascha Riether, made an impression from the get go. He cut inside with real intent – allowing the full-back to race forward on the overlap – and, even when he swapped wings with Duff, still popped up in promising positions.

No analysis of Dejagah’s performance would be complete without a look at the defensive side of his game. The Iranian covered plenty of ground, working back for his side just as impressively as Duff – who by comparison was much less of an attacking outlet – managed on the other flank. Whilst his detractors would choose to focus on the unfortunate penalty decision when Dejagah blocked a Brek Shea shot with his hand, for me the more telling contribution came in stoppage time. With the play over on the right wing, Dejagah made a concerted effort – despite his earlier concession of the penalty – to track back deep into the Fulham box and his anticipation – and recognition of the subsequent danger – allowed him to occupy a vital position between the back post and Peter Crouch to head away a dangerous cross. In it’s own way, that diligent defensive work was just as vital as Berbatov’s brilliant volley or Schwarzer’s penalty save.

There are signs that Dejagah could become a useful weapon closing months of the season. He’s far from an automatic pick – but if Jol wants pace to carry an attacking threat, something he highlighted in his very first press conference as Fulham back, then his best option might be Dejagah. For sure, he’ll have to continue to work on his crossing and shooting – the spurning of two glorious chances against Swansea will only be excised when the winger finds the net for his new club – but you can’t fault the winger’s all-round contribution. If he continues in a similar vein, he’ll have plenty of chances to break his Fulham duck.

Press purring over Emanuelson

It was the participation of Fulham fan and TOOFIF columnist Dave Kidd that made me a regular viewer of the Life’s a Pitch podcast run by BT. You tend to get sharper punditry here than in the back pages as the coverage isn’t as driven towards the top four or five and covers a broader range of topics. So it proved this week as the panelists debated some of the less high-profile signings towards the tail end of the January transfer window.

The Times’ Rory Smith was positively purring about one of Fulham’s new recruits, the on-loan midfielder Urby Emanuelson:

Emanuelson is a belting player. When he’s on form and fit he’s a top-four player, so Fulham have done really well to get him. He can play centre-midfield, left-back or wide left, and he’s been at Ajax and AC Milan, so you can’t get a better education than that. He knows Martin Jol so he’ll be comfortable, and he’s the sort of player Fulham fans will really enjoying watching. A hit.

It’s not exactly a secret that the Jol connection was what secured Emanuelson’s passage to Craven Cottage. He had worked with the Fulham manager at Ajax and, enduring a spell out of the Milan side at the moment, was eager to do so again. There’s no doubting Emmanuelson’s quality and it’s a bonus that he can feature in a number of different positions. He’s probably classier than a continental Chris Baird, but the versatility Emanuelson offers is similar. Comfortable on the left wing or at left back, we’ve seen him so far deployed in central midfield – and he’s caught the eye even in just an hour’s playing time.

Jol has compared his new arrival to Moussa Dembele and it’s easy to see why. He’s got impeccable balance and a deceptive turn of pace but perhaps most impressive he’s increased the intensity of Fulham’s performance both times he’s stepped off the bench. That might not have been difficult during a dire game at Norwich, but the way he was quickly carrying the attack to Manchester United the other week was encouraging. Whilst he was still picking up match fitness and integrating into his new surroundings, it made sense to use him from the bench, but the task for Jol is to find a place for Emanuelson in his side.

Central midfield seems the most likely place for the Dutch international to slot into – although he’ll need to be prepared for Stoke’s physical approach if he starts there in Fulham’s next fixture. It’s probably the best fit for the system Jol’s looking to play to – with Emanuelson able to carry the ball forward from deeper positions, quicken the transition from defence to attack and pick a penetrating pace, that would allow both Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov to spend more time in the advanced areas where they are most likely to hurt the opposition. Like Smith, I’m certainly looking forward to seeing more of Urby in a Fulham shirt.