It is the first season in Fulham’s Premier League history that the club’s league campaign has taken a back seat. In fact, the 38-game battle for position is not even second-fiddle any more. Sunday’s reality-check against Manchester City means that the Whites are almost certainly going to finish outside the European qualification spots come May and, because of this, the fans are now looking towards the two remaining knockout competitions in order for their team to once again be facing off against the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus.
The first option is to win the Europa League – and having knocked out two of the favourites already, this is certainly a possibility. Friday’s draw pitted Fulham against current 10th-placed, German side Wolfsburg, who were beaten 5-1 by bottom club Hertha Berlin at the weekend so, on current form, they are only the fourth-strongest team the Whites have had to face so far. Should the west Londoners astonishingly win the whole tournament, then they should – pending the FA requesting their admission – be allowed to defend the title in 2010/11. Of course there is no easy game at this stage of any competition, but the Cottagers are arguably in the easier of the two sides of the draw. This means, should all go well, the really tricky sides, Liverpool, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Benfica, await in the final in Hamburg. Few could deny that Fulham would be deserving winners should they defeat any of the above. Of course, the next round is not until April, the second possible route back into Europe continues tomorrow night at White Hart Lane.
Just 90 minutes stands in the way of Fulham’s first Wembley appearance in 35 years, but getting a result at Tottenham is never an easy task, but the lure of automatically qualifying for a competition that has brought so much excitement will make things very tight. Roy Hodgson’s early substitutions of both Bobby Zamora and Zoltan Gera, and his resting of Brede Hangeland suggest that even the manager had his eyes on the Spurs fixture rather than City. Of course, recent fixtures suggest even a full-strength, fit and rested Whites XI will have to be at their very best to get anything at all out of the game, let alone a passage into the FA Cup semi-finals. In three matches against Harry Redknapp’s men so far this season, Fulham have yet to score, and were soundly beaten in the league at White Hart Lane. On the plus side, however, Mark Schwarzer has kept two clean sheets – both at Craven Cottage – so they know how to defend against Peter Crouch et al, and Jermain Defoe, comfortably Spurs’ top scorer, is out injured. While Defoe’s injury does not mean Tottenham are short of attacking threat, his absence will be a huge boost to Hangeland – should he be fit – and Aaron Hughes who have been imperious of late – defending against Wayne Rooney aside, of course. The pair dealt with Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko superbly in the first game, and shutting out Spurs’ otherwise sluggish strikers should be the base from which to build.
The defence without Hangeland was cut open too often against City on Sunday, and an exhausted Fulham side were not up to the task of overturning another, albeit smaller, deficit. The players can be forgiven for thinking the league is turning into something of a distraction since the remarkable European campaign kicked into gear, but until the magic 40-point mark has been reached, there is still work to do domestically. However, with several very winnable home games yet to come in the league, the mid-table position is likely to be consolidated sooner rather than later. For a few weeks still at least, the focus remains on cup competition, as – if this writer can discount any away league fixtures, including Hull on March 27 – a likely three league points doesn’t come around now until Stoke visit on April 14.
Before that day, Fulham’s fate in reaching both the FA Cup and Europa League semi-finals will have been decided. If all goes to plan, the league games could very well do nothing but add to this congested cup fixture list.
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