While the weekend’s Premier League action understandably fixated on contests involving the A-list clubs with ambitions of silverware come the end of the season, the final game of the schedule arrives, somewhat overlooked and unloved, with perhaps the most weight to it.
Fulham will arrive at Selhurst Park on Monday evening having picked up seven points from their opening seven games, a somewhat meagre return that has inevitably had some pundits predicting a relegation battle for Martin Jol’s men.
The hosts, Crystal Palace, are in even worse shape however, with their only three points of the season coming in a home victory against the league’s bottom club and current disaster zone, Sunderland.
Most recently, of course, there have been comfortable losses to Swansea and Liverpool—180 minutes in which fans saw little to believe their side will stay up for the first time in five attempts.
It had always been expected that Palace would be embroiled in a fight simply to survive this season, but manager Ian Holloway remains confident he can keep the Eagles in the division.
This despite an incoherent start to the campaign that has seen crucial point-scoring opportunities—away to Stoke and at home to a Swansea side that had just been to Spain in the Europa League—squandered.
Holloway has previous experience of a relegation battle, seeing Blackpool slip back into the Championship in 2011. Both sides rose to the top flight via the play-offs, a route that only makes planning for Premier League opposition harder.
“There were things I got wrong with Blackpool,” Holloway admitted this week, as per the Daily Mail.
“I made mistakes, I got too involved and too emotionally charged. I did not make the best use of the January transfer window—but I have learnt from that.
“The challenge facing the team that comes up through the play-offs is as big as it has ever been. Sam Allardyce should be given a medal for keeping West Ham up last year. We have to finish first of the bottom four.”
If Palace are to beat three other teams and achieve that aim, then early indications are that Fulham might have to be one of them. Martin Jol’s side are blessed with some mercurial talents—Dimitar Berbatov, Bryan Ruiz, Adel Taarabt, to name three of the most obvious—which has marked them as an enjoyable spectacle for football’s cognoscenti, but similarly lacking in a backbone of reliable talent that would make them viable contenders for the top half.
That has been borne out in some of their results to date; slender 1-0 wins against Sunderland and Stoke bookending defeats to Chelsea, Arsenal and Newcastle. An away draw with West Brom, the club’s only other point to date, is all that currently keeps them out of the drop zone.
Nevertheless Jol, like his opposite number tonight, is professing to be unconcerned by his side’s underwhelming start. He told The Independent:
We've got a great team spirit. The only problem we have is we had an indifferent result against Cardiff, but Cardiff beat Manchester City as well. So they're all strong these teams.
But we will fight like other teams and we will try to get the results like other teams and you will have good spells and bad spells, especially clubs like Fulham.
All the other bottom 10 clubs, they will all have the same spells as we do. And I think for the top clubs, and there are six now in England - it's no longer a top four, it will be difficult to get into this top six.
Fulham have a squad with some proven quality, even if results so far have disappointed. They also have a wealthy new benefactor, Shahid Khan, who will almost certainly splash the cash in January if his new investment remains in peril.
Whether Jol, who has experience of surprise sackings (and only needs visit White Hart Lane for the flashbacks), is there at that juncture remains to be seen. Nevertheless, there remains reason for the club’s fans to be relatively confident that the squad is good enough to keep the club in the top flight for another year.
Palace, meanwhile, are still looking for the sort of result that will give them the confidence to believe they can contend at this level. The 3-1 win over Sunderland was celebrated wildly at Selhurst Park, but that delight must be tempered with the benefit of hindsight—the Black Cats have gone on and proven themselves to be a thoroughly dysfunctional outfit in subsequent weeks, yet they would perhaps still have claimed a draw had an unfortunate bounce not seen them concede a penalty and lose a man after John O’Shea brought down Dwight Gayle in the game’s turning point.
Holloway’s Eagles have been poor ever since, failing to pick up an additional point from their six other games.
Their panicked transfer activity (including five deadline-day additions) was summed up by the fact they were forced to leave one new signing out of their 25-man Premier League squad, a symptom of an unfocused short-term plan that has been underlined by subsequent performances on the pitch—invariably high on effort and intent, but lacking noticeably in fluidity or organisation.
In that regard, the recent international break may have been the best thing for Holloway, who will hope he has been able to address some of his side’s more glaring issues.
Defensively, incorporating deadline-day signing Adrian Mariappa into the back line needs to be completed sooner rather than later (the return of Joel Ward from injury also improves matters considerably), while he needs to hit upon a preferred starting lineup further upfield.
With recent arrivals Adlene Guedioura, Barry Bannan, Cameron Jerome and Jimmy Kebe adding selection dilemmas to the midfield and forward options at the club, Holloway must hit upon a tactical setup that suits his personnel.
With speculation—that the club hierarchy insists, not altogether convincingly, is wide of the mark—continuing around Holloway’s future, progress in that area needs to be shown on Monday.
Home games against Fulham are the sort promoted sides invariably need to take points from if they are to stay up. Similarly, games against relegated sides are the sort of contests clubs of Fulham’s stature need to conquer if they are to avoid being dragged into a long battle of survival.
Other games earlier in the weekend gave us further hints as to which sides will be contending at the very top of the table.
This match, however, might give us a more concrete idea of what the rest of the season holds for these two sides with more modest ambitions.
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