Saturday, August 18, 2012

Fulham vs. Norwich preview


The build-up to Fulham's season opener has been dominated by Clint Dempsey's impending transfer. Fulham's best player of the last three seasons has clearly decided at the age of 29, he won't get too many chances to join a truly big team in the future. Unfortunately for gaffer Martin Jol, Dempsey has withdrawn from the squad and has been fined by the club's hierarchy for his actions. Surely Jol could have done without this chaos before the start of the season.

With Dempsey, Danny Murphy and Bobby Zamora all departing the club in 2012, Fulham have lost the core that has been responsible for their most successful phase in the Premier League. Jol now has the opportunity to start afresh, and his aim will be to build the team around Moussa Dembele's under-rated midfield excellence. Supporting the Belgian mastermind, will be the experience of Mahamadou Diarra, Damien Duff and Simon Davies. Fulham don't lack for youthful options, with classy playmakers Kerim Frei, Pajtim Kasami and Alexander Kacaniklic expected to have bigger roles this season after impressing towards the tail end of last season.

In defence the tried and tested quartet of John Arne Riise, Aaron Hughes, Brede Hangeland and Chris Baird will be expected to keep things tight at the back again. It could also be the season where David Stockdale replaces Mark Schwarzer in goal. Up front, the signings of Mladen Petric and Hugo Rodallega might not have raised many eyebrows, but should provide goals for the team.

Norwich will be hoping to avoid the dreaded second season syndrome after a truly exceptional first season in the Premier League after promotion. The architect of their recent success, manager Paul Lambert has left to join Aston Villa. Chris Hughton is a thoroughly decent gentleman who did really well with Newcastle and Birmingham in the Championship, however not much can be read into his brief tenure in Newcastle's first season in the Premier League.

Hughton will not deviate too much from Lambert's tactical philosophy, with the game plan based on the midfield providing Grant Holt and Steve Morison with the chances to score. If Holt manages to replicate his form, then Norwich will be odds on favourites to survive. However, there is a worry that Hughton does not have the tactical nous to implement Plans B and C, an asset that Lambert had in abundance. There is also a fear that Norwich have simply stood still and not strengthened the squad, a risk when other teams around them have strived to improve their squads.

Prediction: Despite Dempsey's impending departure, Jol has a squad of players who should easily understand his philosophy, and eventually Fulham should have another comfortable season. Norwich will struggle to replicate anything close to last seasons form, but the Canaries will be determined to make a good first impression on their new manager. Fulham have a tradition of starting slow in August, so there is a chance Norwich might nick a draw at Craven Cottage.