Preview: Newcastle v Fulham

Stuart Franklin

Fulham travel to Newcastle to take on a Magpies side adrift. Saturday represents the truest test thus far of the Cottagers' 2013/14 mettle.

Forget Sunderland away.

Forget Arsenal at home.

Fulham supporters wishing to kick the tires of Martin Jol's semi-remolded 2013/14 model need look only so far as this weekend's fixture at Newcastle.

A delicious but fortuitous three points were gained at the Stadium of Light in week one against a completely overhauled Sunderland side that has yet to consolidate its identity. If we're honest, Fulham finished its one legitimate opportunity on the day and then defended competently against a Sunderland attack reminiscent of a poorly tuned engine or an ambitious garage band - potentially something, but not quite yet.

In week two, lest you forgot, Fulham hosted Arsenal at Craven Cottage and the Gunners cruelly reminded even the most realistic Fulham supporter that a tepid Arsenal in the throes of an impotent transfer window is still Arsenal and the gulf in class that exists between the top sides and the also rans is only bridged on the occasional one off basis.

Now it's on to week three.

Newcastle are a not-so-dark dark horse relegation candidate. They have the feel of a poorly executed sequel to a mediocre film. We've seen this all before and the gimmicks are wearing thin. Whether Alan Pardew admits it or not, he must be fuming at the summertime appointment of Joe Kinnear. Mike Ashley's penchant for self-destruction is nearly pathological and the appointment of Kinnear has St. James' Park jumping genres from satire to farce - once comical but instructive, now painfully comedic.

Transfer rumors continue to swirl around Yohan Cabaye (Kebab to Kinnear) and Tim Krul and Newcastle have been alarmingly inactive in the summer transfer window - linked with players here and there but doing nothing to substantially improve a clearly *meh* side.

Fulham, on the other hand, remain a question mark with Martin Jol frustratingly embracing his role as Riddler-In-Chief. The Cottagers still clearly need a functional left back and a string-pulling midfielder. Jol mentions "Baird-like" defensive midfielders. One cannot hardly Google Fulham without reading some version of "Why Jol Needs to Play Two Strikers" yet the Bond villan-esque gaffer staunchly refuses to sharpen the pointy end of the Fulham stick, at least not until Arsenal are well up in the 65th minute.

On Saturday, Fulham and Martin Jol have a chance to either embrace the quixotic character of the first two weeks and further alarm the Fulham faithful, or put the knife to another established Premier League side and put some distance between themselves and the "I-could-see-them-getting-relegated" set.

Pardew is set to be boosted by Yohan Cabaye's return to fitness and/or proper state of mind. Fulham will be without Maarten Stekelenburg who is one dodgy shoulder away from being one of the worst signings in Premier League history and, of course, Kieran Richardson whose default status is hamstrung.

I can't imagine Jol throwing John Arne Riise to the wolves again as Adel Taarabt disinterestedly gazes on at the mauling, so I fully expect to see either Matthew Briggs folded again into the back four and/or Adel Taarabt moved centrally or to the bench in favor of a more disciplined option, ie Alexander Kacaniklic. Perhaps a 4-2-3-1 or a even a 4-4-2 is in order considering the state in which Newcastle finds itself.

Regardless the side Jol chooses to roll out, Saturday is the season's first litmus test. Either this Fulham side doesn't have the chops to become a memorable side, or Jol doesn't have the chops to deploy the playing personnel in a way that maximizes their output. I'm not saying Fulham have to win, but I do believe this is the first fixture of the campaign that can be described as caveat free.

Where do we stand?

We will know Saturday evening.

COYW!

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