Bright new dawn for Fulham?

Posted by Phil Mison

Boris Streubel/Bongarts/Getty ImagesDimitar Berbatov and Fulham kick off their Premier League campaign at Sunderland.

Our heroes have a long slog north to Sunderland for their opening game, but should reflect as the miles tick by on the team bus that Fulham have not lost in this fixture since 2009. For Fulham's first competitive game under new owner Shahid Khan, the Whites have every chance of taking something from a rebuilt Sunderland side under Paolo Di Canio, especially with recent recruits to the ranks over the past 10 days in Adel Taarabt and, more tellingly, Darren Bent.

- Fulham sign Darren Bent on loan

Followers of the Black Cats I sourced this week remain shaken by their near-fatal flirtation with relegation last season. There have been false dawns aplenty on Wearside, with the likes of Roy Keane, Steve Bruce and Martin O'Neill all getting things spectacularly wrong, while siphoning off large chunks of owner Ellis Short's largesse in the process.

Now Di Canio has barnstormed through the transfer market and returned with 10 new signings. The Italian did just enough to stave off relegation, with two draws and two wins from the last seven games, but it was only by one place. With no management credentials at this level, a turbulent track record and temper to match, and an endless stream of acerbic criticism and ruthless treatment of those he feels have failed him, Di Canio has the potential to cloak Sunderland in QPR's discarded coat of last season.

But these are not our problems, and this is a Fulham blog, so let's get down to it. The fans have had to tough it out over the summer waiting for tangible signs of a long-overdue upswing in club fortunes. Even this week beleaguered Martin Jol was reminding the press how pitiful investment had been for two seasons and that he continually needed to be 'creative' in the market. Last season the side slumped alarmingly in the spring, hardly surprising with the motley collection of loanees and free transfers the club were fielding.

In 2011 Jol signalled his arrival as manager with a £10.6 million outlay for Twente's Bryan Ruiz. Since then it seems any price tag above £5 million puts them out of the game. Yet not it appears with clubs like Swansea, Norwich, West Ham, Southampton, WBA -- even Cardiff.

What's puzzling me, is what has changed at Fulham? Yes, we sense outgoing chairman Mohammed al-Fayed wished to set a robust balance sheet before prospective new owners, but if you looked at the annual balance sheet of turnover and wages paid, we'd been running a pretty tight ship for years. Throughout the uncertainty of the past few weeks the benefits of hugely increased TV rights money seems to have been forgotten.

We hope a corner has been turned at last with Bent's arrival -- albeit for a season on loan. This is the first time Mr. Khan has been asked to put his money on the table. Jol says he wants three more signings at least. Even Thursday you sensed Fulham were finally moved to action only once Crystal Palace tried to force the issue. Strange to hear the boss refusing to answer questions on Bent in his presser even while the player was at the club undergoing a medical!

Will Bent be the golden boy Fulham so badly need? 103 goals in the Premiership to date says this man knows how to finish. Sunderland fans will be only too aware of that from his time there. But will he get on the pitch Saturday? Well, he travels with the squad after one brief training session with his new team-mates. I'm guessing, but I think he may start on the bench. The same goes for Taarabt.

As for more definitive team news, for Fulham, only Alex Kakaniclic is a worry. Nobody returned injured from the international programme, but Kakaniclic has a tight hamstring that's bothered him for a month. He's subject to a late fitness test.

I, for one, hope he plays. In our final match of last season when we turned Swansea over 3-0 at their place, he was outstanding. But the rumour this week inside the club was that Mesca would start, in itself no bad thing for the 20-year-old who lost a season to knee ligament damage and has featured throughout the friendlies. I expect Kieran Richardson, too, to invite a hot reception should he claim the left-back spot ahead of JAR.

Whatever the starting eleven, we need to see more bite from the team and a readiness to get the ball quicker into dangerous areas. I feel Sunderland will make a nervous start. Wes Brown, Phil Bardsley and Stephen Fletcher are absent, Craig Gardner suspended.

One factor I felt that had been lacking for a while was Fulham seemed not to have enough young and hungry players. There's more competition for places now, and the brooding presence of hit-man Bent and the effervescent Taarabt on the bench will perhaps ginger things up a bit.

One to watch Sunderland: Jozy Altidore. Returning to the EPL the American striker is on top form.

One to watch Fulham: Dimitar Berbatov. Last season's top scorer remains a class apart from the rest.

Score prediction? Nah, not falling for that one, especially on day one.




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