Hughes’ talk of European football for Fulham premature

Mark Hughes’ recent comments regarding his aims for more European football with Fulham – with the FIFA Fair Play league being the best chance, despite holding an outside chance of a qualifying league finish – appear, at least on Saturday’s evidence, quite a way off in reality.

The Welshman believes he can achieve more with the Cottagers than he did whilst at Blackburn Rovers, having inherited a stronger squad, although looking at the performance at Goodison Park his team are far from consistent enough to be considered regular top-10 finishers. As a manager, positive thinking should not be discouraged, but with his side still plenty of points away from safety, all efforts should arguably be focused on keeping the team a safe distance from the relegation spots.

A handful of away wins during a campaign is a must for a team to end the season in the European spots. Qualification through fair play is all well and good, but to win away, especially in game such as yesterday’s where the home team is less than impressive, often robustness in the midfield and attack is required. Against Everton, the Whites were sluggish and lightweight throughout – at least until Bobby Zamora’s introduction – and were never likely to get anything from the game.

Hughes’ Blackburn side were swift, direct and powerful going forward, both home and away, with a hard-working midfield and skilful wide men. Hughes’ claim to have inherited a stronger squad is questionable after yesterday’s away performance, and indeed many before that. Enough areas require strengthening to make regular high Premier League finishes unlikely without additions and replacements to the squad.

Teams who challenge for the European places generally have a combative and creative midfield, particularly in the centre. Without Steve Sidwell, who has shown tenacity since joining in January, Fulham’s has lost all its robustness. Dickson Etuhu, for a man with such a surface area, has the tendency to avoid the physical work – particularly in comparison to Sidwell – and lacks the passing vision or ability of the former Aston Villa man. Against Everton, the central attacking responsibility was on Danny Murphy while Etuhu was largely a bystander, as opposed to when Sidwell chips in attacking-wise too. Murphy cannot and should not be expected to perform the job of two men every game, and the lack of depth in the other midfield slot looks a concern.

Further forward, Clint Dempsey does not mind getting stuck in, but he lacks the strength of Zamora, and alongside Andy Johnson the partnership will not overcome solid home defences. Similarly, Moussa Dembele is not a foil for the small front-man. Johnson, for all his running and energy, is unlikely to win a duel against a tough centre-back and therefore needs a Zamora to play off to be most effective. If Hughes, looking forward, intends to use a sole striker with a fluid three in behind, which is an option, Johnson might begin to struggle for a look in.

While Fulham should have enough about them to survive this year, without changes to a team that has not taken well enough to Hughes’ style of football any talk of consistent top-half finishes appears somewhat hopeful.

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