Chelsea return home from their excursion to Turkey to face Fulham at Craven Cottage on Saturday. The Blues top the table, sitting just 1 point ahead of Arsenal, and will be in a battle against a Fulham side that is currently propping up the table. However, the way that the bottom half of the table shakes out this season, the Cottagers are just 4 points from safety and just 6 points behind 15th place. While the gap in points has widened, if Fulham can string a few wins together, they may be able to survive.
To ensure their survival, Fulham sacked Rene Meulensteen and brought in Felix Magath as their manager. On him, their hopes to find a bit more fight for the relegation battle, if they can survive his brutal training methods and borderline tortuous physical work.
On the other side, Chelsea return from their match against Galatasaray with a 1-1 draw in the bag and an away goal and will turn their attention on the league, where they could open up a gap of 6 points on Manchester City and put pressure on Arsenal who must travel to Stoke on Saturday.
What effect will Felix Magath have on Fulham?
The German who has been dubbed many things has taken over a team that needs a bit of spark and inspiration. The real question is what affect he will have on the team. There is no question that Magath is a very good manager. His CV and record speak for itself. However, it’s his relationships with his players that have cost him jobs in the past. The question will be how their players respond to the manager and his methods, especially given how quickly they must turn it around.
They started off well under Magath in earning a draw at West Brom and standing firm, but facing the Blues is a much bigger task. Taking points away from the sides around them is imperative, but they will also be looking to take advantage of any tiredness Chelsea may be experiencing after traveling and returning home on Saturday.
Suffice it to say, they do appear to have a bit more drive and determination in the one match since the removal of Meulensteen, but only time will tell whether that sticks or not. There’s not a whole lot to say about Fulham, except that they’re not a very good team.
And you thought Chelsea had striker issues…
Kostas Mitroglou, Fulham’s big winter signing, has once again been ruled out of the match, with Magath deciding that he’s not fit enough to play. With the sale of Dimitar Berbatov to Monaco, it leaves Hugo Rodellega and Darren Bent as the only recognized strikers of note at the club. That leaves a massive hole in a team that has only 27 goals in the league, which doesn’t cover the fact that they’ve shipped 59.
Rodellega and Bent have scored 5 goals and 4 goals respectively, but both are off of the pace of their top scorer, Steve Sidwell with 7. That’s a major problem, particularly because Sidwell isn’t really known as a goal scorer. Not only that, but Rodellega has failed to replicate the form that he showed at Wigan and Bent hasn’t been the same since he and Paul Lambert fell out at Aston Villa. Last season, Berbatov was able to pull them out of the fire with his all-around ability to lead the line, but he failed to deliver the goods this season. Bent and Rodellega haven’t filled that gap, and Fulham have suffered because of that.
Fulham have a creativity problem in their midfield.
Part of Fulham’s problems have been in creating goal-scoring chances on a consistent basis. They scored two against Manchester United and two against Liverpool recently, but in the four games prior to that, they scored just 1 goal and lost all four matches. Lewis Holtby was brought in to help with that problem, but he’s not had the time to really settle into the side.
The only form of creativity in terms of generating chances comes from Kieran Richardson crosses, which means that the centre backs may once again be getting a workout dealing will balls in the air. More than likely, they will try to flood the midfield as they did in the first meeting and attempt to nick a goal on the counter. Depending on how Jose Mourinho sets up the team, it could be a long day for Fulham.
What will the condition of the players be coming back from Turkey?
As some supporters were wondering about Mourinho’s rotation, or lack thereof, in recent matches, but I think he may be forced to after this trip. Having just arrived back from Turkey on Thursday, I would imagine that we there’s a good chance that we’ll see at least one of our two cup-tied players making an appearance. Nemanja Matic should start, and it might be a debut start for Mohamed Salah as well.
However, Fulham will put up a fight, and the manager may very well decide to set out what he believes is his strongest team in order to keep pace at the top of the table. Being out of the FA Cup may help with the fixture pile-up, but squad rotation is something to look at going forward.