Having missed out on claiming all three points last weekend in the Black Country, Fulham remain bottom of the table as they host Chelsea in a West London derby Saturday. Neither Jose Mourinho or Felix Magath is encumbered with any significant injury concerns, although the Chelsea boss may choose to rotate some stars out of the high-flying Blues' constellation after their midweek Champions League clash against Galatasaray.
Fulham supporters will be hoping that another week with the club will have brought Magath that much closer to solving the Fulham puzzle, but a visit from Chelsea is an altogether different proposition than a scrap against the likes of West Brom. To make matters worse, the top of the Premier League table is just as tight as the bottom, albeit with fewer sides involved, and the days of Craven Cottage hosting "trap matches" against the heavyweights of the league seem well and truly distant. Chelsea showed their champion's credentials last weekend with a last gasp winner against Everton and Jose Mourinho will be keen to keep pace with the Blues' top-of-the-table rivals by dispatching Fulham as efficiently and ruthlessly as possible.
I am not suggesting Fulham cannot win this match, but possibilities and probabilities have oft been confused and to ruinous effect. Fulham supporters have cited the Great Escape of 07/08 as evidence that Fulham can avoid the drop. While there's always hope, 13/14 is, respectfully, an altogether different kettle of fish.
New managers, assuming they're good managers (and Magath certainly has an impressive CV), need time to affect change. Reversing the fortunes of a football club is a little like steering a container ship. It takes time to navigate to a destination regardless of whether that destination is a port or a reef. Supporters tend to forget that Roy Hodgson was appointed in December of 2007. Fulham didn't win a league match under the Sainted One until February 3, 2008. They didn't win a second until March 16th of that year. Time is something Magath does not have and he will have to learn at a pace similar to that of Neo in The Matrix when he's plugged into that learning platform to download Kung Fu.
What should he have picked up in the West Brom match? Fernando Amorebieta is not a viable left back. Brede Hangeland is not this season the player he has historically been. Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell, for all of their outstanding qualities, have a tendency to get overrun late in matches. These are all inconvenient truths Rene Meulensteen had learned. Hence, the inclusions of Dan Burn and John Arne Riise and the purchases of William Kvist and Johnny Heitinga. Save for the insertion of Ashkan Dejagah in the first XI for the here-and-gone Ryan Tunicliffe and the potential of a now fit Kostas Mitroglou starting a match, Magath could field a side and system against Chelsea that is almost identical to the side and system Meulensteen was settling on when he was unfairly sacked after the Liverpool match. Where does that leave Fulham? At the mouth of a harbour right between a port and a reef with a new captain who's still learning his crew and ship.
For Fulham to get anything from Saturday's match, they must remain compact and not allow Eden Hazard to run at an isolated Sascha Riether. This will require Riether to tuck in closer to his center backs a la the Manchester United and Liverpool matches and place significant defensive responsibilities on Ashkan Dejagah. Ditto Willian and whomever Magath deploys at left back and on the left side of midfield. Magath will exclude Dan Burn at his peril. Additionally, should Jose Mourinho elect to rest John Terry or Gary Cahill, Fulham must do what they can to draw David Luiz out of central defense and force him to defend in space. This will require inside/out runs from either Mitroglou or Rodallega and means that once Fulham win the ball in defense or midfield they cannot be wasteful in distributing the ball. Kvist's qualities on the ball may be a better option here than Parker's industry.
Of course, Magath may make wholesale changes again, altering the system and personnel in an effort to bar the door and nick an unlikely point with a match specific system designed to suffocate the Chelsea attack. However, such systems, when successful, require well drilled players and a manager with intimate knowledge of his charges and opponent.
All hands on deck.