That’s Fulham’s task Saturday -- and a tough one it is too at Southampton, where the Saints are really flying. What a contrast in their fortunes over the past 12 months, and from Fulham's last journey down the M3 to St. Mary’s in October 2012.
The sides shared four goals that afternoon, as with Nigel Adkins at the helm the promoted side could not stop shipping goals. It was 24 from their first eight games, and sadly for Adkins the board lost faith with him before he could turn things around.
Now at Reading -- who Adkins masterminded to a splendid victory over the Whites at the Cottage during their miserable ‘Spring of Discontent’ -- Adkins may feel somewhat hard done by to have been jettisoned so quickly. Here was the man who had taken the Saints into the Premiership with two back-to-back promotions. But he was fired last January with the club three points outside the relegation places.
Such fine margins between success and failure in the top flight. Having exited the Premier League in 2005 and then gone into administration in April 2009 lumbered by £30 million of debt to service the impressive new stadium build, Southampton fans have been on a recent journey as heady as Fulham followers in the early years of Mohamed al Fayed’s tenure.
There’s a friendly rivalry between the clubs, and most of us fans have enjoyed away days to the old Dell and the new ground too, while Saints at the Cottage are always welcome visitors. The Southampton board have been utterly vindicated in their actions, as Mauricio Pochettino has bought cleverly, tightened the defence and improved the team in every way. Evidence of that came at Old Trafford a week ago when they came away with a draw -- this after leaving England man Rickie Lambert on the bench.
Going into Saturday’s game, Fulham, if they are to make it three wins on the spin for the first time in 18 months, are going to have to pierce one of the meanest defences in the league. And fragile as the Whites have been in conceding late on, their opponents have been making a habit of scoring in the last 10 minutes this season. With the home side perched sixth place, five points better off than Fulham, the odds say home win.
I’m going for a draw, the result from the teams' last two meetings. While Martin Jol’s side still have some way to go to convince the doubters, it is vital Fulham build on Monday night’s Palace romp. People are saying without the two blinding strikes from Pajtim Kasami and Steve Sidwell that night, Fulham might have been struggling to take a point. I can see their case.
Fulham remain without a master craftsman in midfield to unpick the opposition. Drills that reinforce the pass-and-move mentality plus ways to speed up play -- and crucially, feed Darren Bent the kind of service he thrives on, are still to be honed. Much criticism has been heaped on Dimitar Berbatov’s shoulders lately for playing way too deep. On Monday he touched the ball more than any other man in White -- how telling is that? Never mind what that t-shirt said last Christmas -- I’m sending him a new one. ‘Dimi get in the box’.
From the club we hear skipper Brede Hangeland needs time to sort out a sciatic nerve problem. Once upon a time this would have me fretting. Not now. The defensive back line that served Fulham so well Monday will do just fine for me. I like Fernando Amorebieta the more I see of him, while Philippe Senderos is in the Fulham form of his life.
The other absentee is likely to be Bryan Ruiz with a back strain. Not being a fan of his, this does not trouble me either. Apart perhaps from the thought that Jol, especially as Fulham are away, may react conservatively and start Damien Duff. I am wondering if we shall ever see another first-team goal from the veteran Irishman?
Jol played a bold hand at Palace -- Bent, Berbatov, Kasami and Ruiz all starting. Fulham lack wingers at present. Is it because they are all no good, or because Martin has no faith in them? So if Fulham are looking to play narrow, there has to be plenty of movement off the ball. Giving Scott Parker no options but to keep rolling it square to the full backs gets Fulham nowhere.
Defeat does not spell a return in irons to the dungeons for our manager while the fans re-stock on supplies of rotten fruit. But a tough run of fixtures beckons. The fans need clear signs the side are on an upward spiral, and part of that process requires the gaffer to sometimes admit he is wrong, while listening to the opinions of others. A handshake for every staff member in the dugout at Palace on the final whistle? Now we’ve not seen that before. COYW!
Remember kick-off is at 17.30 BST (12:30 p.m. ET in the U.S.) if tuning in from afar