The FourFourTwo Preview: Fulham vs Sunderland
Dad’s Army versus an assortment of players haphazardly assembled by a fiery Italian linked to fascism. That’s a better sell than Super Sunday, right?
Gus Poyet should immediately revive the old drop-dodging managerial cliché about every game being a cup final: if Sunderland could replicate their knock-out form in the league they'd be safe by now. While they’re able to conjure the magic to beat Chelsea and Man United in the League Cup, they continue to stutter in the league with only one win in their last nine games.
- Norwich 1-1 Fulham (FAC)
- Fulham 2-1 West Ham (Prem)
- Hull 6-0 Fulham (Prem)
- Norwich 1-2 Fulham (Prem)
- Fulham 2-4 Man City (Prem)
- S'land 2-1 Man Utd (LC)
- S'land 3-1 Carlisle (FAC)
- S'land 0-1 Aston Villa (Prem)
- Cardiff 2-2 S'land (Prem)
- Everton 0-1 S'land (Prem)
This dreadful run of form has left the Black Cats four points from safety and five behind Rene Meulensteen’s men in 16th. Their last win in the Premier League was on Boxing Day, away at fifth-placed Everton. Their two other wins this season have come against two other high-flyers – Man City and Newcastle.
Gus Poyet’s players have no problem focusing for the big occasion, but it’s when they come up against the teams around them – the teams they need to beat – that they choke. They’ve claimed just three points from a possible 27 off teams in the bottom half of the table. Forget cup glory, this stat needs to see a dramatic transformation if Sunderland are to avoid Championship football next season.
Like Poyet, Fulham boss Meulensteen was handed a team in meltdown (they’d lost five on the bounce before he took over), and asked to save the club from relegation. He’s inherited a team of aging stars on the decline – Dimitar Berbatov, Scott Parker, Damien Duff – and gifted players whose careers are petering out prematurely – Kieran Richardson, Adel Taarabt and Darren Bent.
Meulensteen’s predecessor Martin Jol collected 10 points from his 13 Premier League games in charge. The new boss has reached nine in seven so there has been a marked improvement in results. Most significantly, Meulensteen has guided his team to wins against fellow strugglers – Aston Villa, Norwich City and West Ham United.
Their losses have come against Tottenham, Everton, Manchester City and Hull City, all teams – bar Hull – you would expect to see competing at the other end of the table come the end of the season.
The club needs an injection of young, talented, hungry players with ambition who want to take Fulham up the table, not a bunch of mercenaries happy to plod along at cozy old Craven Cottage.
A victory would put eight points between themselves and Sunderland, a loss would see the Black Cats close the gap to two. It might not fit the ‘super’ bill, but it’s serious.
Fulham’s former hero Clint Dempsey could be in line for a first start in the Premier League after joining the club on a two-month loan from MLS outfit Seattle Sounders. Goalkeeper David Stockdale will continue to deputise for the injured Maarten Stekelenburg. It’s still too early for Brede Hangeland – the Norwegian defender is expected to return next weekend.
Sunderland are without the injured trio of Steven Fletcher, Carlos Cuellar and Keiren Westwood.
Key battle: Scott Parker vs Lee Cattermole
Even if the energy in legs his is waning, Parker still has a thirst for battle pumping through his veins. With the experience and guile of a 33-year-old Premier League veteran, Fulham’s skipper is central to the Cottagers’ survival. Parker’s performance during the 2-1 win over West Ham United underlined his importance.
The former England international was the game’s top passer – completing 76 out of 85 attempts – a success rate of 89%. In Fulham’s 4-2-3-1, he partners Steve Sidwell in front of the back four, acting as the defensive shield, but he was still the game’s most prolific distributor in the attacking third – finding a team-mate 30 times in advanced areas. Three of those passers created goalscoring chances. He continued to break free of his role as a spoiler, registering three successful dribbles – the best record in the match.
Of course, this didn’t distract Parker from his defensive duties – he made 6 ball recoveries and 2 interceptions. If Sunderland want to get a result in the capital they’re going to need to stifle the Fulham skipper’s influence. They have just the man for the job – Lee Cattermole. He might not be the most elegant of players and his belligerence often turns into thuggery, but when he’s not letting the ball slip under his foot or heading for an early shower, he can be an effective destroyer.
During the Black Cats’ goalless draw against the Hammers he made more ball recoveries (10) and tackles (8) than any other player. He also showed he was comfortable on the ball (try to forget his mistake against Villa) topping the passing charts with 56 successful exchanges, 12 of which were in the final third. With Parker and Cattermole butting heads in the centre of the battlefield, things could get tasty. Magic sponges at the ready.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- S'land 0-1 Fulham (Prem, Aug 13)
- S'land 2-2 Fulham (Prem, Mar 13)
- Fulham 1-3 S'land (Prem, Nov 12)
- Fulham 2-1 S'land (Prem, May 12)
- S'land 0-0 Fulham (Prem, Nov 11)
Meulensteen was brave enough to hand four of his youngsters debuts in the FA Cup against Norwich, but placing such faith in them in a relegation dogfight might be a step too far. Taking such a risk could prove to be a stroke of genius or a catastrophic misjudgement. To integrate them successfully into the team he’ll need his established stars to step up and earn their over-inflated wages.
Poyet is clearly at the end of his tether with his own players, stating the current group is not good enough to stay in the division.
Their inconsistency is his main gripe – the Uruguayan said they couldn’t even manage a seven out of 10 performance most weeks. The former Brighton boss also singled out his team’s impotency in front of goal. “How many (shots) do we need to score a goal? 50? No, you need more quality,” he moaned.
He’s already recruited Fiorentina left-back Marcus Alonso and he’s chasing unsettled Brighton star Liam Bridcutt, but most importantly he needs to hold on to striker Steven Fletcher and keep him fit.
Both have taken on tests more akin to Football Manager challenge mode. Unfortunately, poor performances come with consequences in real life – there’s no reset button to save you from relegation and the sack.
TIPS & TRENDS
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Facts and figures
- Fulham have conceded the first goal 15 times this season (more than any other team).
- Since the start of last season Fulham have won just 2 of 11 in which Dimitar Berbatov hasn’t started compared to the 15 in 47 in which he has started.
- There have been at least 3 goals in 8 of Sunderland’s last 10 away matches against bottom-six sides.
- The Black Cats have failed to score in 6 of their last 9 trips to Craven Cottage, winning just once.
Best bet: Fulham Home Win @ 2.25
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Both teams are horribly inconsistent, so despite Sunderland’s win over United and Fulham’s victory against West Ham, expect a drab 1-1 draw.