Wednesday night, Chelsea’s marathon season continues with a trip to their West London neighbors, Fulham, in a match at Craven Cottage that could have implications for both team. With Arsenal managing to just draw against Everton, Chelsea can leapfrog Arsenal for third with a victory over the Cottagers, while the Cottagers will be hoping for a point to avoid the mire of relegation below them. 40 points should be enough to guarantee them safety, but Aston Villa in 17th are just 6 points back, with Wigan a further 3 points behind them with 2 games in hand. Suffice it to say, both teams would like to get a victory from this match.
How will the Blues recover from the disappointment in the FA Cup?
The most interesting thing to me won’t be really anything Fulham can do, but where the minds of the players are going into this match. Playing a match where the pressure will be on to come away with all three points is difficult. Doing so after having to recover physically and mentally from a tough defeat will be a true test of the character of the squad. Given that the Blues have lost out on every trophy except the Europa League, it will be interesting to see what energy levels they have, especially given how ragged they looked in the first 60 minutes against Manchester City on Sunday.
They must find a way because the fight for the top four will get harder, and with the extra game in hand coming against Tottenham, nothing is truly guaranteed at this stage.
If I’m Rafa Benitez, I’m looking at Fulham’s backline and thinking that I can shred them for pace.
If I look at the first choice center back pairing of Fulham, I think I can cut through them with pace and trickery. Neither Philippe Senderos or Brede Hangeland are known for their searing pace, and Senderos is particular lacking in his ability to turn and run with someone after they get on his hip. In fact, I think he still has nightmares about Didier Drogba for taking advantage of that exact weakness repeatedly when Senderos played for Arsenal.
Personally, I think you’ve seen the problems that those two can have against those types of players as Loic Remy tore through them in the second half and Papiss Cisse caught them both watching late on against Newcastle. I think we have two of them that can attack that way, but we have to resist the urge to play it wide and cross it into the box. That plays to their strength in the air.
In attack, it’s all about Dimitar Berbatov.
Against QPR, Berbatov was at his magisterial best, initiating every attack and getting on the end of the attack when needed. However, in the second half, he largely disappeared because of Fulham’s inability to give him the proper service. Credit to QPR for pressing more in that match, but some questions could be posed to Berbatov’s somewhat lethargic-looking style.
However, that match simply underlines that without Berbatov, Fulham are a very ordinary team. He does have pieces around him with Bryan Ruiz, Urby Emanuelson, and Hugo Rodallega, but none have really been able to make an impact in the same way as the Bulgarian. The key to stopping the attack of Fulham is to limit Berbatov’s touches.
Aside from the pace weakness in the back line, the second biggest weakness in the Fulham side is their midfield.
Part of the problem of Fulham’s issues in providing service to Berbatov is their midfield. While Damien Duff is still serviceable out wide and Emanuelson is capable of playing on the other flank, Steve Sidwell and Giorgos Karagounis are both very ordinary in the center. We all know what Sidwell brings to the table, but unfortunately, he has a very similar type of player next to him in Karagounis. It’s actually a real problem, only because neither is really very good at distributing the ball from the midfield, and both tend to want to play box to box. Interestingly, in a 2-man midfield, it’s managed to cause some issues where their midfield were unable to cope.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the teams they’ve beaten either outnumbered them in midfield, had better midfield players, or forced their midfield to have to win second balls off of knockdowns. I think that’s something that can be exploited.
Which Fulham side turns up mentally?
Against Tottenham and for one half against QPR, they looked like they were going to close out the season in strong fashion and perhaps push to finish above 10th with Swansea and West Brom a bit off form. However, since that second half against QPR where they almost completely fell to bits after going 3-0 up, they’ve looked rather ordinary, and last week, a hard-working Aston Villa earned a good draw and possibly deserved a win.
Against Chelsea, they can’t afford to have those mistakes, and if they do, the Blues must make them pay for it. Pushing their midfield around and forcing their center backs to turn and run can be effective, as I mentioned, but I think you just need to keep them under pressure and they’ll give you spaces to exploit. That’s the biggest key for the match.
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