For the first point in some time, Fulham is up against a team who isn't vastly superior and/or isn't desperate to win. That means that they need to take advantage. Anything less than a win here really hurts the prospect of staying up.
CC: After a bit of a struggle last year, things really have turned around. You're in tenth place, and nine points clear of the drop zone. What was your expectation for the club going into this year, and how high do you think you can finish?
7500 to Holte: Going into the season I expected a less tumultuous version of last season; my hope was that they would avoid getting dragged into the relegation battle and show some real and measurable progress in the table come season’s end. Given the difficulty of Villa’s schedule early on (Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool to start and Manchster City their sixth game in the Premier League) I anticipated a very slow start, with things picking when things got a bit less hectic in the fall. Instead, Villa started off with a shocking 3-1 win at Arsenal, closed out September with a win over City, and held their own against Chelsea and Liverpool. Outside of those games they’ve performed about as expected, putting them well ahead of where I’d thought they’d be at this point in the season.
Manchester United at home is the only game that looks a long-shot to deliver points before the end of the calendar year, so it’s conceivable Villa could go into 2013 on the fringes of the Europa League places; still, it’s unlikely they’re going to go the whole year without hitting a rough patch, and though they’ve won some unexpected victories this season they’ve also shown themselves just as capable of dropping points to squads they should be beating. A finish any higher than 9th seems unlikely, as does a finish any lower than 14th. Things are so tight in that region of the table that it’s impossible to be more specific than that, but I’ll go ahead and say 12th because why not.
CC: After seeming to be on everyone's wish list this summer Christian Bentke hasn't had the greatest start to the year. Is something wrong with him, or was he just not quite as awesome as everyone wanted to make him out to be?
7500: I think it’s a combination of things, but I think the biggest issue is that he’s still suffering from the lingering effects of the hip flexor injury he suffered against Norwich back in late September. Those injuries have a way of lingering, and there were concerns at the time that Benteke had been rushed back too early. Benteke started the season very well, scoring 4 goals in 4 Premier League games and adding another in the League Cup against Rotherham before the injury, and he just hasn’t looked nearly as explosive since coming back.
Injuries to Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, whose skills compliment Benteke’s so well, have also made things difficult. It’s also possible that defenses are beginning to adjust to him, though his early-season form makes me skeptical there’s much to that. There’s also the fact that even the best strikers go through droughts such as this one, and Benteke’s relative newcomer status makes the spell stand out a bit more. Ultimately, it’s just not something I’m especially worried about going forward.
CC: Finally, I didn't seriously start following Fulham until the end of the 2009-2010 season; so I've never really experienced a club in a relegation fight. I know that Aston Villa went through just such a season last year. What advice can you give to a supporter to help them stay sane through the campaign?
7500: The thing that helped me most of all was just taking things one game at a time. When things were at their worst both last season, the one before, and to some extent the one before that, it was difficult to think rationally about Villa’s actual chances of survival. When a team is playing as poorly as they were around the time they were beaten in the League Cup semifinal-over two legs!-by Bradford City, it seems a stretch to see them beating anyone. Then, before you knew it, they were beating Sunderland 6-1. Lots of things can change in a relatively short period of time. Ultimately, Villa had more than enough talent on their squad to stay in the Premier League, and they figured things out in enough time to survive. I’d be pretty shocked if Fulham don’t do the same, and they’ll probably do it a whole lot sooner than Villa did. There are far worse teams in the Premier League than Fulham, and though that’s no guarantee of safety, it does make it far more likely than the alternative.
Projected lineup, and score prediction
7500: Guzan; Bacuna, Clark, Baker, Luna; El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor
Normally I’d expect Lambert to stick with the same 3-5-2 lineup-with Benteke in for Kozak-that Villa used against Southampton, but Ron Vlaar’s calf injury makes that unlikely. The 4-3-3 (which can function a lot more like a 4-5-1 depending on the game) seems the most likely, while a 4-4-2 with Westwood making way for Matthew Lowton and Bacuna sliding into midfield is a possibility as well.
Predicted Score: 2-2
Because Villa’s weird, I’d feel better about Fulham’s chances if this game were being played in Birmingham. Fulham looked much better against Spurs and I really think they’re going to turn things around, but Villa’s been so much better away from home that it’s hard to see me losing. This should be a pretty fun game, and in the end I don’t think there’s enough between the two sides to view one as a favorite.