Sunday, July 29, 2007

Premiership Preview--13. Fulham

13. It's lucky number 13 for Northern Ireland--excuse me, I mean Fulham. Manager Lawrie Sanchez will begin his first full year in charge of the Cottagers with a revamped roster and higher expectations for a team that was going nowhere fast under Chris Coleman. Sanchez managed Northern Ireland from January 2004-May 2007 and took them from 124th in the FIFA world rankings to 33rd, the spot they held when he resigned, and did it with a team that wasn't exactly teeming with individual talent. He's shown that he can be successful but the club level is different than the international stage, so he'll be looking to prove that he can cut it in the Premiership. Fulham finished in 16th place last season, just one point clear of relegation, and were rescued from the drop only by a victory over a Liverpool side that was without many of its top players.

If Sam Allardyce has been proactive in the transfer window this summer, Lawrie Sanchez may have been even more so. He brought in seven players and bid goodbye to eight more, most notably Heidar Helguson, who went to Bolton. Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird, Steven Davis, and David Healy all played under him for Northern Ireland, and striker Diomansy Kamara and versatile defender Paul Konchesky came to Craven Cottage this summer as well. Fulham were tied for the most goals allowed in the Premiership last year (60), and the signings of Hughes, Konchesky, and Baird will give Lawrie Sanchez more options in the back to help shore up the defense. Healy and Kamara join a striking corps that also includes holdovers Brian McBride and Collins John. The attack certainly won't be dynamic, but should be good enough if the defense does the job that's expected of them this season. Heidar Helguson is the only player worth mentioning that left Fulham this summer, so Lawrie Sanchez has a team that will be entrenched in the top 15 this season.

To be honest, Fulham's schedule appears to be the easiest of any of the teams covered in this Premiership preview so far. There's a five-game stretch that covers all of November and into December that brings road games at Manchester United, Liverpool, and Everton, as well as home games with Reading and Blackburn. January will be tricky as well, but Chelsea and Arsenal both come to Craven Cottage and Fulham have winnable road matches at Bolton and West Ham. There are no runs of games of any real length other than those two so Fulham will have every chance to at least challenge for a top half position, though that seems unlikely.

Bottom Line: Lawrie Sanchez will be out to show that he can manage at the club level. I wouldn't be surprised if they swap places with Newcastle (Fulham finishes 14th, Newcastle 13th), but I also wouldn't be surprised if Fulham finish a spot or two higher than 13th either. They've got a decent team in place, a schedule that's not particularly difficult, and a billionaire Egyptian chairman behind them in Mohamed Al-Fayed.

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