In recent weeks, as Arsenal have stuttered, Tottenham have floundered, and with Manchester United’s plane having flown, Everton have been quietly coming up on the rails in the race for the Champions League. Theirs is a salutary story of team growth – while Ross Barkley has had a sparkling breakthrough season and Romelu Lukaku has scored at a rate of a goal every other game, it is solidity and consistency of selection (combined with relatively good fortune in terms of injuries) which has taken them to this point. On Sunday, though, the first half found them pedestrian. They did not take the game to Fulham, with no-one, with the possible exception of Gerard Deulofeu, looking much inclined to seize responsibility until the introduction of Steven Naismith for the ineffective Barkley at half time. While the second half performance was better (it could not have been much more insipid), their initial approach suggested that perhaps, at heart, they do not believe that fourth place is within their grasp. And they are probably right. Games are running out. They are four points behind Arsenal (albeit with a game in hand on the Gunners, and with a match against them next up), but they host both Manchester sides in the run in, as well as facing a tricky trip to Southampton. Arsenal, meanwhile, will fancy their chances of winning all five of their remaining games after next week’s clash with the Toffees. Roberto Martinez certainly seems to have taken his team on from where they were under David Moyes, but until they can start games like this with an attitude that they are simply going to win no matter what, they may struggle to make much of an impression in the higher echelons.
If – no, let us be realistic, when – Fulham are relegated this season, many of the fingers of blame will inevitably be pointed in the direction of the signing of Kostas Mitroglou late on in the January transfer window. And on the face of it, an eight-figure transfer fee for a man who, in the two months he has been in England so far, has made the Scarlet Pimpernel look conspicuous was perhaps not the best piece of business. When push comes to shove, though, the question must arise as to what Fulham have truly lost. They were bottom of the league when Mitroglou joined, with the porous defence that will ultimately prove their downfall (and which was in evidence again on Sunday) already in full flow, and the one thing that they really didn’t need was just more new players, with 37 players having made at least one substitute appearance for them this season. In the meantime, Mitroglou’s disappearing act has allowed highly promising youngsters such as Cauley Woodrow, Muamer Tankovic and Moussa Dembélé to break through. If he wants to leave the club in the summer, he will have been there for such a short period that they will surely make most of their money back. If he can find his elusive form and fitness, though, he has the talent and physique to cut swathes through the Championship, and he could yet lead the Cottagers back to the Premier League in a blaze of glory.
Fulham’s Greek frontman is not the only one, of course, who could be leaving Craven Cottage in the summer. In a season of constant fire-fighting, the intention behind Felix Magath’s appointment was very much short term, a final desperate attempt on the part of Shahid Khan to keep his team in the Premier League, based on Magath’s (perhaps somewhat outdated) reputation from his time in Germany. But some of the manager’s decisions have not quite met that template. Darren Bent, a seasoned Premier League campaigner, has been warming the bench, and he has shown no compunction about throwing academy products straight into the first team. Was this an all-in gamble in the hope that one of them will hit form and fire Fulham out of trouble? Is this a 60 year old man who was simply tempted to Craven Cottage with a juicy contract and little to lose? Perhaps; or maybe this is just the start of one last adventure to rebuild a grandly storied club. Bet now at Paddy Power
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