As Fulham welcome Manchester City to Craven Cottage this weekend, Martin Jol will know that despite the champions’ stuttering form defensively, it is their midfield which brings them their success. The likes of Chris Baird will have to stand up to the power and athleticism of Yaya Toure, as well as the vision and guile of David Silva and Samir Nasri ahead of him.
On the face of it Fulham could struggle to compete in the middle of the park, particularly with the Cottagers not only shorn of the talents of the departed Moussa Dembele, but now without Mali international Mahamadou Diarra for a prolonged period due to injury. Manager Jol has cast his net wide and brought in Giorgos Karagounis to offer some creative spark but the Greek veteran is yet to appear for his new club.
However, despite the apparent hole in their midfield, the Cottagers have rallied and produced two of their best performances of the season to take maximum points at home to West Brom and more impressively, away at Wigan in their last encounter. Dimitar Berbatov of course gets the headlines and rightly so but perhaps more importantly ahead of Fulham’s toughest of midfield tests, the efforts of Steve Sidwell and Chris Baird have gone under the radar.
While Sidwell has often been in and around the Cottagers’ first team, Chris Baird’s arrival has coincided with his side’s return to form. The Northern Irishman is clearly in the twilight of his career at 30 years of age and is never likely to produce a defence-splitting pass or beat two or three players in the manner of the departed Dembele. Indeed, Baird’s spells in defence often had Fulham fans wondering where the next mistake was coming from.
However, what Baird offers in a holding central midfield role is simplicity. His role is simply to shadow, track back, tackle and when with the ball pass it on as quickly as possible to Fulham’s more creative talents. It may not get the headlines but away from home where Fulham were often left exposed due to their desire to go forward, particularly when Dembele, who would be one of only two central midfield players, would also go forward.
Now, it may be less exciting and explosive but with Baird and Sidwell acting as a double defensive pivot, Fulham can let their attacking talents loose to flourish without any defensive constraints. Berbatov in particular thrives on this.
The last time City came to the banks of the Thames, the would-be champions raced into a 2-0 lead courtesy of Sergio Aguero only to be pegged back by goals from Bobby Zamora and Danny Murphy to drop their first points of the season. Both those players may have departed but the message was clear – on their day, Fulham can compete with the very best and with Baird and Sidwell doing such a good job, who would bet against Berbatov and co. pulling off a similar upset one year on.
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