Life in the basement

Posted by Phil Mison

Rene MeulensteenPA PhotosThere has been an improvement at Fulham since the arrival of Rene Meulensteen and assistant manager Ray Wilkins.

The one question all Fulham fans are asking themselves three weeks into 2014 is: Are there three teams worse than the Whites in the league? The current Premier League season has scattered the field in a manner not seen before.

We still have an elite Big Four contesting the ultimate prize at the top, but for the first time in living memory Manchester United are not among them. After their failure to overcome Sunderland and make the League Cup final an all-Manchester affair, United face an unprecedented trophy drought, with even a place among the Europa League qualifiers questionable.

Everton and Southampton have shown the most enterprise and progress in the first half of the season, Tottenham still flatter to deceive, and although Tim Sherwood has made a solid start, I don't see it lasting.

But if you really want to set the stargazers, punters and so-called pundits a stiff test, try forecasting the three clubs going down come May. From Aston Villa down to Cardiff City just six points cover eleven clubs all fighting to save their skin.

This is not a forensic analysis of the strugglers' predicament. We'll call it a gut reaction and the instincts of your man on the Hammy End, who has lived through the trauma of many a Fulham relegation fight down the years.

Working from the bottom up, Cardiff City have a histrionic owner and a new manager untested at this level. Let's be honest Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Molde to the madness that reigns in Cardiff is quite a step up for you. The squad there looks workmanlike at best to me, and short on goals. But they more than make up for that in guts and good old fire and brimstone. Now they are in for Wilfried Zaha. That shows ambition, and a willingness to spend. Don't write them off yet.

Sunderland are really showing an improvement. They appeared too far gone but Gus Poyet has turned them around. Of course, they turned up at the Cottage this month and totally ruined New Year. On current form they are playing better than Fulham. Worryingly, I think the Black Cats will finish above the Whites now. Just imagine where Fulham might be now had Poyet been hired last summer as he should have been.

West Ham chairman David Gold says his club are at a "low point in their history." They've won just four games all season, look a shambles, and have all their chips riding on Andy Carroll coming good. I don't think he will, there's no money for reinforcements, so it's the Hammers to drop.

Promoted Crystal Palace won't go down without a fight, especially with the pugnacious Tony Pulis at the helm, but go down they will. There's no quality in the side, and they will be found out in the run in when the pressure mounts.

The next three in the standings are all sides Fulham should overhaul -- Swansea, Stoke and WBA. The Whites have already beaten Stoke, should have seen off West Brom and only lost at home to Swansea through an own goal and an out-of-the-blue 'worldie' from Jonjo Shelvey. The upcoming trip to the Liberty is a real opportunity to gain a result, and Swansea's home form is woeful.

Even though Stoke remain a blot on the Premier League landscape, Fulham rarely take points away from the Britannia, but the same cannot be said of the Hawthorns.

I am surprised West Brom are prepared to let Shane Long leave. They had better get used to doing without Nicolas Anelka too, because I suspect that FA enquiry is only going to end one way -- badly for the Baggies. Yet another modest team with a new foreign manager. I will be amazed if West Brom finish above Fulham. This could well be the season they slip back into the Championship. A big money maverick up front and a lack of investment in new players... why sounds just like Fulham!

The final three in deep water, albeit currently sitting mid-table, are Norwich, Hull and Aston Villa.

Hull are best equipped to ride out the storm, and have shown they are prepared to strengthen. I take my hat off to Steve Bruce, because I thought he had nothing left to offer once shown the door at Sunderland. I was wrong, and how I winced through that 6-0 hammering they gave Fulham. Up the Tigers! I like the way they play the game, and only hope by the time they come down to the Cottage they have nothing to play for and the Whites can hopefully take revenge with three points.

Likewise Norwich. Surely Fulham's only nailed on three points of the run in. The very thought of travelling down to Craven Cottage is enough to give every Canary follower a coronary. But in truth they are on a par with Palace -- plenty of work-rate but distinctly average, and they don't score enough. Odds on to go back down to the Championship, and they need a change of manager.

Finally, Aston Villa, though still underperforming for Paul Lambert, somehow find ways to come up with the odd big performance (as at the Emirates on day one) that will be enough to keep them afloat. That's not to say the Villains' fans will be happy with another season of awful football.

Conclusion? Fulham will do enough to finish clear of the bottom five, though some recruiting still needs to be done in the next ten days. The club have been linked with some exciting names so money does not appear to be an issue. But with this tightly packed bunch there are no easy games between now and May. Thirty-seven or 38 points may in fact be enough this season.

The current side really need to start building momentum. We've seen shafts of light since Rene Meulensteen's arrival, but let nobody be in any doubt that every member of the squad needs to be giving 100 percent for the 16 league games still to come. Rest assured, if they see effort on the pitch, the fans will be right behind the team every step of the way.

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