Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fulham is Not Done and Dusted Yet


Just last week, I wrote, in effect, that if Fulham didn't beat Sunderland at Craven Cottage, their hopes for retaining a place in the Premiership were finished. Their remaining schedule didn't provide too many opportunities to pick up points, so the Cottagers absolutely needed to get a victory against a team that had been poor on the road all season.

We all know what happened; Sunderland came into London and walked out with a 3-1 victory, despite a great goal from Fulham striker David Healy. At that point, I thought Healy's team was doomed for the drop.

Not so fast. Yesterday's game against Reading was truly, in all senses of the term, a must-win affair. Fulham HAD to have all three points, no if's, and's, or but's. They played like it too, dominating the match for all 90 minutes and in the end, earned a 2-0 victory that could've eaily been 4-0 or 5-0. Brian McBride scored in the 24th minute, and Erik Nevland, one of the Scandinavian players brought in under Roy Hodgson's watch, finished it in second half stoppage time.

Sure, Reading didn't show up, but you have to give Fulham a lot of credit for taking their fate by the scruff of the neck and fighting for survival. Anything else besides a victory and the fans back in West London would've needed to get used to drinking Coca-Cola for at least a season.

Fulham will be a bit disheartened by Bolton's 1-0 win over West Ham, as the Trotters moved themselves to within two points of safety and kept their position in 18th place, two points ahead of Fulham.

With that said, though, 18th isn't Fulham's ultimate goal; 17th is, and they moved two points closer after Birmingham's home draw against Everton. Again, Fulham will feel a bit unlucky because Birmingham equalized in the 83rd minute to snatch a share of the spoils, but making up two points (instead of three) is still huge right now.

Let's take a look at the run-ins for Fulham, Birmingham, and Bolton, and we'll even throw Reading in there as well as Steve Coppell's club is only three points clear of the drop zone. These four teams are likely to fight it out until the last kick of the ball this season; I believe everyone ahead of Reading is safe and obviously Derby County has long been relegated.

Fulham (27 points): Liverpool, @ Manchester City, Birmingham, @ Portsmouth
Bolton (29): @ Middlesbrough, @ Tottenham, Sunderland, @ Chelsea
Birmingham (31): @ Aston Villa, Liverpool, @ Fulham, Blackburn
Reading (32): @ Arsenal, @ Wigan, Tottenham, @ Derby County

Clearly, the biggest game of the 16 shown here is Fulham-Birmingham at Craven Cottage. If Fulham can manage to leapfrog Bolton and, in the process, cut their deficit to two points or less when they host Birmingham on Saturday, May 3, a victory would catapult the London side out of the bottom three.

How do I see things going, you ask?

Well, I can see Fulham taking five points (draw with Liverpool and at City, victory over Birmingham), Bolton taking only one (draw with Sunderland), Birmingham only one (draw with Blackburn), and Reading three (draws at Wigan, with Spurs, and at Derby).

If those predictions stayed true, the final standings would look like this:

16. Reading (35)
T17: Birmingham (32)
Fulham (32)
19. Bolton (30)

Birmingham and Fulham would then have to be sorted out by using goal differential. At this point, it definitely favors Birmingham (-13 to Fulham's -24), but three Birmingham losses, including the one at Fulham, could turn that around. I would still say that Birmingham would win a tiebreaker, but you never know.

The last four games of the season are going to be great. This is a relegation battle that will go down to the last day and for Fulham to even make this a contest after last week's loss to Sunderland is great. As I said, I'm not sure if they climb out, but they're going to keep fighting until the end.

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