Fulham’s visit to Norwich City this weekend will serve as both a happy and painful memory to Martin Jol and the club’s supporters. Back in the sunny days of August, the two sides met on the opening day of the Premier League season at Craven Cottage and Norwich were blown away by the home side by a crushing 5-0 scoreline that could and should have been more.
Watching Fulham on that day it was hard to predict anything other than a successful and entertaining season for Jol’s side. They looked strong at the back with Brede Hangeland, superb in midfield with Mahamadou Diarra and Moussa Dembele and potent up front with Bryan Ruiz and Mladen Petric.
However, since then, the season has descended into mediocrity and until a win over West Ham recently, looked in danger of becoming a relegation battle. Despite the addition of Dimitar Berbatov, Fulham have looked listless and easy to beat on too many occasions this season and looking at the line-up that opened the season so spectacularly, it is not difficult to see where the difference may lie.
The defence remains untouched while the attack is not only still in place but has been improved tenfold with the introduction of the brilliant Berbatov. However, it is in midfield where Fulham’s problems currently lie. Fundamentally, the club has still not come to terms with the departure of Moussa Dembele.
The Belgian, magnificent against Norwich in that 5-0 victory, was sold to Tottenham late in the transfer window and with him appears to have also gone Fulham’s confidence and quality in midfield. Dembele was crucial to everything Fulham did. In a rather one-paced team and particularly in midfield, Dembele offered them drive and acceleration, an ability to run with the ball at speed, beating players in the process, something that currently no one in this Fulham team is able to provide.
The 25-year-old also provided a massive presence and vitally, quality and creativity with his passing in midfield. Fulham players would know that if they were in trouble, Dembele would be close by to relieve the pressure and charge up-field with the ball. Matters have not been helped by the constant injury problems that plague Diarra’s Fulham career, leaving a gaping hole in Fulham’s midfield that, at the start of the season, was a position of such strength.
Chris Baird and Steve Sidwell have been relied upon to fill the void of Diarra and Dembele and although they give every ounce of what they have, they simply lack the class of the latter duo. Martin Jol appears to be aware of this with his pursuit of Tom Huddlestone in the final days of the January transfer window. Huddlestone may not move across the park in the manner of Dembele but at least with the ball at feet offers the sort of creativity and sureness and touch the Belgian had in abundance. Thus, Jol’s disappointment at failing to get his man will be palpable.
However, the loan-signing of Urby Emanuelson might just keep the Cottagers rolling until the end of season. Nominally a wide player, the Dutchman has been known to play in central-midfield and would at least offer a step up from Baird and Sidwell, something Fulham so desperately need.
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