Neil Blackmon continues his EPL Preview marathon. (Too bad he doesn’t work for you guys ESPN)
Part III of our Barclay’s Premier League preview focuses on five teams that should all contend for the Europa League, which, depending on who you ask, is either great (because some ownership boards are honest enough to admit they aren’t going to make the Champions League), or the European soccer equivalent of college basketball’s NIT. One disclaimer before we get started: two of these sides could conceivably make a Champions League run. And at least one of them certainly could, and may, finish fifth. Those two teams are placed in Part III rather than Part IV of the preview simply because in most conceivable scenarios, a finish of 6th or 7th, respectively, is far more likely than a Champions League spot, or even a tough-fought 5th place finish. On we go…
FIVE WHO’LL FIGHT FOR EUROPE(A)
Last Year: Overcame a rugged stretch early in the year to find a measure of consistency and form down the stretch. They never really got hot—they just avoided lengthy losing streaks, eventually finding enough goals in Mark Hughes’ rather predictable system to defeat the teams they should defeat and avoid embarrassing defeat to the teams they tend not to defeat. They also managed to qualify for the Europa competition for the coming season by earning the UEFA Fair Play award, despite a red card scare from Zoltan Gera in the season’s final fixture against Arsenal. After a marvelous run in the Europa league a year prior, last year was really about Fulham continuing to establish itself as a legitimate, impressive club firmly among the EPL’s top-half, and even though Mark Hughes departed on acrimonious terms, it should be noted that he certainly left Fulham better than he found out, which is becoming a trend.
Summer Additions: Fulham were relatively quiet this off-season, and at a small club with limited but not dire economic resources, that’s probably a good thing.
New gaffer Martin Jol did add one nice piece, 30 year old Norwegian left back John Arne Riise from Roma, whose attacking prowess from the fullback position will add flexibility to an already respected attacking side—a flexibility that was lacking after a subpar year from Mexican international Carlos Salcido.
Swiss U-20 international Patjim Kasami is another intriguing signing, and he’ll add physicality and size to a midfield that at times struggles against more physical opposition. Czech midfielder Marcel Gecov also joins the side at the bargain price of $650,000, but that about rounds up the help brought to Craven Cottage, and as the transfer window winds down, it is unlikely Jol or the board will make additional moves.
Summer Losses: Addition by subtraction, at least in TSG’s view.
Zoltan Gera didn’t have much left in the tank at the end of last year and nearly cost the team its spot in Europe. Now he’s West Brom’s payroll’s problem. John Pantsil has his days but he has many more mundane ones than good, as evidenced by his move to a lower division of English football. Diomansy Kamara is also departed, off to Eskisehirspor in Turkey to close out a once-promising career that was mired by injury and difficulty adjusting to the physicality of the English game. Getting him off the payroll could also benefit the Cottagers come January.
Strengths: The midfield, led by the finest American player in the world and for the time being, the finest player in CONCACAF, Clint Dempsey, is deep and with the addition of the promising young Swiss player Kasami, it is capable of attacking in a variety of ways.
Dempsey is at his best when he’s allowed to roam, drift centrally and create, and the pairing of he and a Dutch manager in Jol who sees the game quite similarly to Dempsey could be a match made in heaven. Danny Murphy remains a heartbeat player for the Cottagers as he nears the twilight of a long and (somewhat unappreciated?) career—he’ll join Dempsey, Simon Davies and Damien Duff in the league’s most economical (production-wise) midfield. Beyond the strong middle, Fulham are, as ever, steady in the back, led by two of the world’s finer defenders in Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes, as well as one of the EPL’s only “elite-class” goalkeepers, Mark Schwarzer. If golden academy boy Matthew Briggs can add anything, this too will be a more deep unit fit to the rigors of balancing both the EPL and Europa League demands—which you’ll remember was troubling for the Cottagers two seasons ago.
Weaknesses: Obviously, the closer you get to the top of the table, the less pronounced a club’s weaknesses are. This is not to say the top ten clubs don’t have them, and certainly Fulham are depending on the injury prone Bobby Zamora to carry the water bucket at forward yet again. Behind Zamora, there is 24 year old Belgian Moussa Dembele, who certainly shows flashes but also has significant scoring droughts. That’s not a great deal of depth for a team that will likely play a more attacking style of football under Martin Jol, and its part and parcel the reason the side will either need a new forward in January or absolutely require another fine year of goal scoring from Dempsey and a healthy Riise adding a backline threat to give Fulham extra offensive versatility.
Best Case: 7th, simply because one almost expects them to hang out in the Europa League for at least a couple of months. In fact, only moments after they had seen off RNK Split to advance to the playoff stages, manager Martin Jol conceded balancing the two will be the biggest challenge for the Cottagers in league play. The longer they do hang around in the competition, the tougher time a team that added depth but is still relatively thin by contenders’ standards will have hanging around high in the table.
Worst Case: 14th, thanks to another injury to Zamora, a broken down Riise, Clint Dempsey finally planting his knee wrong while “trying something” (that was difficult to type), and stalwart veterans Danny Murphy and Aaron Hughes showing old age early in the spring. Don’t see it happening, but it could. And who knows how the Jol transition will work from the get-go—though Europa was probably helpful in that limited manner.
Our Guess: 8th, and edging further towards permanent respectability, and all the American adulation being the club of Brian McBride, having Clint Dempsey and a statue of the King of Pop entails.
Last Year: The team famously dubbed the “Oakland Raiders of the Barclay’s Premier League” weren’t terrible like the Oakland Raiders, but they weren’t very good either. Come to think of it, they were a lot like last year’s Oakland Raiders. Still, after sacking Chris Hughton, who had led them back to the EPL, they enjoyed top-flight football again very much. They earned a remarkable 4-4 draw with Arsenal that will go down in Magpie lore, defended well after a shaky beginning in the back and avoided the drop. Now the hard part—avoiding “second season syndrome” in year two back in the big boys league.
Season Additions: Gabriel Obertan is in from Old Trafford on a five year deal that will hopefully provide a spark to the Newcastle flank as well as the young Frenchmen’s once star-destined career. He’s only 22—the Toons seem a fine place to start over, toiling in relative opposition hatred like at Old Trafford, but with the security blanket of mid-table anonymity. Alan Pardew also brought Jen Chang favorite Demba Ba in from West Ham on a free—and if the speedy, athletic Senegal attacker can find any measure of consistency, that could be an absolute steal.
Shola Ameobi also inked a new deal, indicating that Newcastle was determined to bolster the attack should the saga with completely crazy hipster footballer person Joey Barton continue. And it will, as Alan Pardew, himself a certifiably crazy person, has said whether Barton plays or not is “absolutely his call.” Beyond those moves, French midfielders Yohan Cabaye and Sylvain Marveaux add depth.