Every match preview you read for Fulham's New Year's Day fixture against West Ham United will begin with some derivation of "Fulham looking to recover from Hull City mauling," and include the phrase "against fellow strugglers, West Ham United." It's science.
While factually true, the reality of Wednesday's match is much more nuanced than the aforementioned plug-and-play ledes. As I argued in my match review of the Hull City game, the Norwich, Hull City, West Ham, and Sunderland fixtures, due to their proximity to one another on the calendar and the league position of the respective clubs, are really a package deal. Four matches to find some sort of solid footing. Four matches to get above water and the suffocation of the relegation zone. Four matches to create some sort of buffer, no matter how slight, before the throes of the transfer window wreak havoc on the league table.
As bad as the Hull City thrashing was, and sweet Lord was it bad - the list of things I would rather have endured is lengthy and doesn't necessarily exclude a colonoscopy - it wasn't a death sentence. Any combination of a win and a draw against West Ham and Sunderland sees the Cottagers taking seven points from four matches and surely drag themselves from the mire of the relegation zone. Two wins and nine points from four matches would be, well...now I'm fantasizing.
The point is, these next two matches will inform how Fulham supporters come to think of "That Match." Was it the moment the wheels fell off and Fulham violently screeched along, sparks flying from exposed rims, to the potential oblivion of Premier League relegation? Or was it the moment the club - owner, manager, and players - got its s#!t in one sock and kicked on to safety?
One potential silver lining of the whole affair is the ruthless exposure of the squad's lack of depth and balance. Such a heavy defeat right before the transfer window opens may serve to loosen the purse strings a little bit and bring in some much needed help. Shahid Khan is already showing a willingness to be proactive with the appointments of Alan Curbishley and Ray Wilkins to Rene Meulensteen's backroom staff. Firing Martin Jol was clearly not a panacea and investment is needed in a number of areas.
Of course, this is all fluff if the XI who take to the pitch New Year's Day don't manage at least a point against West Ham. Meulensteen doesn't seem a reactionary sort and I'm betting there are still players to be rotated in the next two fixtures. With a squad as old as Fulham's and a fixture list as congested as the Premier League's during the holiday season, it's just a reality, although I'd be surprised if any of the titular players were saved for the looming FA Cup match against Norwich. Survival is now the only order of the day.
With a makeshift back four and a squad that has absolutely leaked goals all season, West Ham's heretofore blunt spear means next to nothing. Besides, the Hammers bagged three against the Baggies and will like their chances at Craven Cottage, which has become less a fortress and more a couch cushion fort. Look for Meulensteen to play with three central midfielders, although Giorgos Karagounis and/or Steve Sidwell, who's not yet been rotated, may make way for, dare I say, Derek Boateng. Maarten Stekelenburg may also return after picking up an ankle injury.
The desire to protect the back four must be balanced against the chance to attack West Ham's own depleted squad however. James Tomkins and James Collins are set to miss out and Sam Allardyce arguably has a bigger selection dilemma than does Rene Meulensteen. Dimitar Berbatov may be back in the side after missing out on the last three matches with a groin injury, but if he's not, Adel Taarabt will likely lead the line for the Cottagers. I just can't see Darren Bent has having done enough thus far to start in such an important match.
Lastly, there's the potential that prodigal son Clint Dempsey will see time off the bench. The terms and paperwork of his two month loan deal from Seattle Sounders are apparently done and dusted and he should be eligible to play New Year's Day, although his lack of fitness will surely prevent him from making anything but a cameo appearance. *Sigh*
This is a massive match and a New Year's Day hangover after a stumbling, punch-drunk performance at Hull is simply not an option. Auld Lang Syne...