Fulham free fall already looks like ending in relegation tears
And with their tough fixture lists, Norwich City and Cardiff City could be joining them
Fulham players stand dejected after Sheffield United scored what turned out to be a late winner in their FA Cup Fourth Round replay at Craven Cottage. Already out of both cups, the London side also look like prime candidates for Premier League relegation. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
It was a personal reminder of the importance of doggedness in football. After 90 minutes of tedium from Craven Cottage, then some of the first half of extra-time, the channel was finally switched from ITV4 to BBC4 on Tuesday night. The subject matter changed from Fulham versus Sheffield United in a squalid FA Cup replay to the art of the Rococo period. The contrast was, as they say, stark.
If only the switch had been made earlier. If only Fulham had signed Rococo.
Perhaps they have – Fulham made seven signings in January – but none was available to score a goal against the team second-bottom in League One, the English third tier.
So Fulham are out of an FA Cup they have never won. They have never won the League Cup either and departed this season at Championship leaders Leicester City.
Along the way, having changed ownership last summer, Fulham swapped one Dutch manager, Martin Jol, for another, Rene Meulensteen.
The upturn has not been apparent. Solid members of the Premier League despite the absence of trophies – when they came seventh in 2009 under Roy Hodgson it was their highest-ever top-flight finish: Fulham’s presence at the top table is now being edged away like a chair at a disappointing lunch.
The last six league games have brought three points. The run began with a 6-0 defeat at Hull. The one victory was against 10-man West Ham. Four consecutive losses later, Fulham have dropped to the bottom of the table.
Their next two games are Manchester United away (tomorrow) and Liverpool at home next Wednesday. You can see where this is going.
Lose both and Fulham will have 19 points from 26 matches. Last season Queens Park Rangers had 17 points from 26 matches. They too spent heavily in the January transfer window but although Loic Remy scored five goals in his first nine appearances, by season’s end QPR were long-gone.
Should Fulham’s biggest new signing, Kostas Mitroglou, from Olympiakos, score at Remy’s rate of a year ago, he will probably think he’s fulfilled part of his side of the deal. But will that be enough?
Lewis Holtby has also arrived, from Spurs, and Clint Dempsey is back from America for a short spell, but it would require an optimistic reading of the fixture list to see Fulham staying up. It’s not just Manchester United and Liverpool, in their next eight matches they also face Chelsea, Manchester City, Everton and Newcastle.
This is a team that has conceded 53 goals already, 20 more than either West Ham or Crystal Palace.
Yes, just six points separate the bottom half, but unless Meulensteen – or his possible replacement Alan Curbishley – are capable of enticing trickery, one third of the relegation puzzle looks solved.
It gets harder after that. Cardiff City are one place and two points above Fulham. Today Cardiff are at neighbours Swansea and who knows how Swansea’s players – particularly those signed by Michael Laudrup – will respond to his departure.
Cardiff then have home games against Aston Villa, next Tuesday, and Hull. They have Fulham yet to come to south Wales and Crystal Palace and Stoke. Cardiff need to win those home games because their away form is worse than Fulham’s. Cardiff have lost their last five away.
Today at Swansea therefore matters more than mere local pride, though it might not feel like that.
The home team need Michu back. His absence since December could prove more telling than Laudrup’s. Cardiff will hope Swansea’s wobble has come just at the moment they had to show the balance that has propelled them upwards from the old fourth division. The Swans have a difficult-looking run-in way to Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton and Newcastle.
They also have a Europa League double-header with Napoli. That should have been something to treasure, now it looks something to get out of the way. Ditto the FA Cup– another Everton away day.
This is how the money of the Premier League squeezes the joy and tradition from other competitions.
Sam Allardyce fielded a novice West Ham side at Nottingham Forest in the Cup for this reason. The Hammers’ situation is brighter following Saturday’s victory over Swansea, when Andy Carroll’s head intervened.
Then Carroll’s arm did the same and the stakes are such that West Ham intimated a legal challenge over Carroll’s three-game suspension.
But, suspended, Carroll misses Aston Villa away today and the big one, Norwich at home on Tuesday.
Ring of the bell
Even now, that game will come with a ring of the bell. Norwich warm up with a visit from Man City today. The prospect of Canary points feels zero. Chris Hughton might actually be better concentrating everything on Upton Park, in fact concentrating everything on five games against those around them, including Sunderland and West Brom at home and Fulham away.
Norwich need points by April because their last four games are Liverpool and Arsenal at home and Man United and Chelsea away. Those four will expect to be sprinting then.
Hughton’s consolation is the games Norwich have won have been against those around them.
But they look vulnerable, as do Crystal Palace, who probably need an away win somewhere as they have Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Southampton and Man United to come at Selhurst Park.
Elsewhere it feels like Stoke, Sunderland, Hull and West Brom will have enough. West Ham and Palace? Possibly.
So, a prediction: Fulham, Norwich City and Cardiff to go down. But don’t bet on it.