Well, this is it.
Anyone writing about Fulham this season has surely written something to similar effect - I know I have - but the form of other teams; Fulham's recent tendency to play well in defeat; devilishly bad luck; and mathematics, have all conspired to cultivate that most delicate and cruel emotion among a relegation candidate's supporters. Hope.
With four of Fulham's relegation rivals playing one another this weekend, hope will take a serious, possibly fatal blow if Felix Magath cannot find a way to spur his charges on to victory Saturday. Three points keeps Fulham in touch with safety. A loss surely frees the club and the supporters from the unknown and allows for preparations for life in the League Championship. A draw? Now that would be cruel.
Fulham find themselves in this position so late in the season as they have simply been unable to keep the ball out of their own net and no combination of defenders, goalkeepers, and covering midfielders has shown the sort of promise that might suggest a change to that trend in the season's closing weeks. In Aston Villa, however, Fulham will be facing a squad that suddenly finds itself without a business end to its stick. The Villans will be without Christian Benteke who suffered a severe Achilles tendon injury in training yesterday, and Gabriel Agbonlahor is set to miss out as well as he is in the process of recovering from illness.
No player wants to see another player miss out through injury or illness, but if Fulham are to keep hope alive, they must be unemotional about the circumstances surrounding Saturday's contest and take advantage of the fact that they'll be taking on a side that is absolutely shipping goals at the moment and will be missing its two best attacking players.
The key for Fulham will be to limit Fabian Delph's touches in midfield. As long as Delph is occupied putting out fires in front of the Aston Villa back four, he will not be able to serve effectively as the pivot player driving at Fulham's defense or finding the likes of Marc Albrighton out wide. He's also the sort of player who could find himself sent off if the Fulham attack proves too overwhelming and Villa are unable to break the pressure.
For his part, Felix Magath would do well to set his side up with real width in the squad. Perhaps a starting role for Ashkan Dejagah? Paul Lambert will likely employ Grant Holt as a lone striker, which means they will try to find the flank space and take advantage of the big man's aerial prowess and strength. If Fulham can overwhelm Villa's central midfielders, thereby forcing Albrighton, et al to come infield to get on the ball and also force them to defend more narrowly, outlet passes to the Fulham wide men and runs in behind will be on. If they cannot, people will start to remember that Benteke was out of form before his injury anyway and that Grant Holt used to be a pretty good striker in this league.
Karim El Ahmadi (thigh) and Nathan Baker (foot) are set to return to the Aston Villa squad. Fulham's major injury concerns continue to center around Scott Parker and Kostas Mitroglou who will both be absent for the trip to Birmingham. Darren Bent is unavailable for selection against his parent club.
Come on Fulham, keep hope alive.