Fulham travel to St. Mary's Saturday riding the high of a 4-1 destruction of Crystal Palace. Said destruction was not without caveats however, and while the Fulham faithful are hoping fluid, attacking football has arisen from its Snow White-esque slumber on the boots of Martin Jol's men, Southampton present an altogether more robust challenge to what can hardly yet be described as a Fulham rebirth.
Mauricio Pochettino has Southampton purring like a finely tuned sport sedan. At the beginning of the season, I picked Swansea as my not-so-dark dark horse to challenge the traditional front runners' for the upper echelons of the Premier League, but Britain's other south coasters are the side looking most likely to crash the party.
Southampton currently sit 6th in the league on 15 points and have generally played some of the most fluid, pleasing attacking football of the 2013/14 campaign. That said, Fulham are only 5 points behind Southampton through 8 matches and have a chance Saturday to consolidate the momentum they earned against Crystal Palace and stake a claim to actually turning the proverbial corner.
This is not to say Fulham have to win or even draw Saturday's match. A competent, balanced display defined by confidence and purpose in attack and a disciplined, difficult-to-break-down defensive effort would signal that Martin Jol and his charges, buoyed by the Crystal Palace result, are all finally reading from the same script; that Fulham are not in fact flat track bullies capable of dismantling the cellar-dwellars but consigned to be the whipping boys of the clubs further from relegation danger.
In order to accomplish this modest task, Fulham have to limit Adam Lallana's touches and ability to combine down the right flank with either an overlapping Nathaniel Clyne or inside/out running Daniel (Pablo..Dani Pablo...Pablo Dani?) Osvaldo.
Pochettino's preferred deployment of Southampton has been a 4-2-3-1 formation with Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin sitting in behind Jay Rodriguez, Steven Davis, Daniel Osvaldo, and Adam Lallana. In this formation, the onus for providing width falls to Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne who have thus far done exceedingly well in accomplishing this task.
Look at last weekend's 1-1 draw against Manchester United. Adam Lallana competed 91% of his passes, including 13/14 in the attacking third, and his most popular target and provider was Nathaniel Clyne.
In order to combat this pattern of attack, it is difficult to imagine Jol fielding the same XI he deployed against Crystal Palace, where Sacha Reither and Kieran Richardson were largely counted on to provide width and Bryan Ruiz and Pajtim Kasami pinched in to get on the ball and make outside/in runs. Fulham's left side, specifically Kieran Richardson and whoever Jol decides to run out on the left side of midfield, will have their hands full preventing Clyne from getting forward while at the same time limiting Adam Lallana's ability to check to the right flank and get on the ball.
Worst case scenario: Richardson, Jol's choice at left sided midfielder, and Scott Parker and/or Steve Sidwell are constantly pulled to the left side of the field to deal with Clyne and Lallana and the side becomes unbalanced horizontally through midfield. Southampton are more than capable of quickly switching the point of attack and playing in attackers on the Fulham right side.
Fulham therefore have to maintain defensive shape and force Southampton to play across the face of the defense. I suspect Jol will field only one striker (if you have to ask, it's Berbatov) and rely on a five man midfield to even up the numbers in Pochettino's 4-2-3-1.
In all honesty, I wouldn't hate seeing Parker, Sidwell, and Derek Boateng on the pitch at the same time. I just do not think any combination of Ruiz, Kasami, and Berbatov has the discipline to track every run and help put out every fire over the course of 90 minutes at St. Mary's. And that's exactly what it's going to take for Fulham to get anything from this match.
Is it onward and upward? Or was Crystal Palace a false dawn?
I'm hoping for the latter.