Preview: Fulham v Sunderland

Steve Bardens

Fulham host Sunderland Saturday in a pivotal bottom of the table clash. With a chance to claim a magnificent nine points from a possible twelve in the last four matches and distance themselves from the mire of the relegation zone, Rene Meulensteen's club must seize the chance to dispatch a Sunderland side flirting with good form following recent positive cup displays.

With a win Saturday at Craven Cottage over relegation front-runners Sunderland, Fulham could put as many as five points between themselves and the desperation of the relegation zone. Rene Meulensteen surely targeted the run of matches that concludes Saturday as a prime opportunity to drag the club up by its boot straps by heaping misery on Fulham's neighbors at the foot of the table. Six points from four matches would have been the minimum targeted. Seven points would have been wholeheartedly welcomed. Nine points? Ecstacy.

The doom and gloom of the December 28th massacre at Hull has given way to something approaching tepid optimisim as the club has been strongly linked with the sort of vetted players it needs this transfer window (Ryan Bertrand, Johnny Heitinga, etc) and the sort of young talents that, through loan deals or even permanent moves, could provide tremendous upside (Ishak Belfodil, Simon Makienok, etc.).

While the thrashing at Hull laid bare the limitations of the current squad and certainly lit a fire under Rene Meulensteen and Shahid Khan's check book, it also highlighted the enormity of the task ahead and perhaps caused the club to miss out on the likes of Michael Bradley, the USA midfield dynamo who opted for a move from Roma to Toronto FC of the MLS instead of leaping head first into the throes of a relegation scrap.

Even if Fulham can manage points against a recently resurgent Sunderland squad looking to transfer their startling cup form into a bid for Premier League survival, there are still trying days ahead. Fulham have yet to beat any club in the top half of the table and desperately need to improve the squad this transfer window in order to ensure a steady stream of points won against the clubs around them and a realisitc chance at avoiding relegation.

Sunderland, on the other hand, have not been strongly linked with any substantive moves in the transfer window unless of course you count the noise surrounding the possibility of an exit by striker Steven Fletcher. The Black Cats are in dire straits and have the feel of a Wigan redux - savant cup specialists imprisoned in the basement of the Premier League. A win at Craven Cottage and losses by West Ham United and Crystal Palace would pull Gus Poyet's side to the cusp of safety. The reverse would be a death blow.

I would suggest this is Fulham's most important match of the four match league package that began against Norwich City; a chance to either consolidate the improvements made under Meulensteen and kick on to something approaching safety while having a productive transfer window, or an alarming backslide toward the relegation trapdoor.

Fulham are still without Brede Hangeland, but Maarten Stekelenburg could return from his ankle injury and loan signing Clint Dempsey will likely see time following his cup appearance in the 1-1 draw against Norwich City.

Sunderland have no fresh injury concerns, but are still without longterm absentees Carlos Cuellar and Kieren Westwood.

COYW!

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