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Preview: Fulham v Stoke City

Mark Hughes returns to Craven Cottage at the helm of a Stoke side looking to take advantage of Fulham's current woes.

Ian Walton

How quickly things change.

One year ago, Mark Hughes was perhaps the most reviled manager in Fulham's recent history. The soft-spoken Welshman left Craven Cottage in the summer of 2011 after less than one year at the helm because, as he controversially suggested, Fulham lacked ambition. When he returns to west London Saturday as Stoke City's latest manager, he'll match wits with an under siege manager who has essentially said twelfth position is good enough for Fulham and is currently dragging the club through a decidedly yellow patch. Yellow is the opposite of purple apparently. I Googled it.

Mark Hughes, although he'll most likely hear some boos, could probably murder a puppy with a sledgehammer at midfield before the match and still not be the most unpopular manager at the Cottage come Saturday. Martin Jol is all but out of time and a brief respite from supporters calling for his job with a cup win against Everton following a 2-0 loss to west London rivals Chelsea was short-lived after Fulham gave up yet another stoppage time goal to drop all three points against Premier League new boys Cardiff last weekend.

A visit from the Potters, not exactly setting the world on fire themselves, would seem just the sort of fixture Fulham needs to get back on track, but the same could have been said about Cardiff's trip down the M4 and look how that turned out. The club has faults and a tweak here and there isn't what's required at the moment. Poor set piece defending, a terminal lack of pace, an absence of creativity in midfield, a talisman who plays his own match in his own head, an isolated target forward too often left to Sisyphean toil in the wilderness of the attacking third, a regrettable penchant for giving up stoppage time goals, and a manager seemingly impotent to reverse even one of these suddenly definitive characteristics...did I miss anything?

Bleak doesn't begin to describe the mood of most of the Fulham faithful.

Still, I'm inclined to believe Martin Jol when he says Fulham has the players to win matches. Maybe not matches against the luminary sides of the Premier League, but against Newcastle, Cardiff, and Stoke? Surely. And yet they've not. Should Fulham put in another underwhelming performance at home Saturday and drop points to the suddenly less-reviled Mark Hughes, the steady roar calling for Martin Jol's tenure as manager to come to an end will become a blaring cacophony of vitriol. Jol out.

Stoke may be without Jonathan Walters who is suffering from a groin injury, but look to have a complete squad otherwise. Fulham, on the other hand, will likely be missing Scott Parker and Aaron Hughes, Ashkan Dejagah, Matthew Briggs, and Maarten Stekelenburg remain long-term absentees. This could mean a return to the starting XI for Bryan Ruiz and it will be interesting to see where he's deployed. My hope would be that he'd find himself somewhere in the middle of the park to shove Dimitar Berbatov further up the pitch in the hopes that he might finally form even the semblance of a partnership with Darren Bent who will otherwise find himself lonely and brutalized by the Potters' murderous central defenders.

I'll refrain from making any predictions, but suffice it to say, Fulham and Martin Jol need all three points. Anything less would certainly mean the end of the Jol era. There's a sizeable portion of Fulham supporters who wouldn't see this as a bad thing. Short term pain for long term gain. I, for one, hope this doesn't come to pass. I just couldn't take a smug Mark Hughes.