Football FanCast columnist Martin Kane wonders if Fulham are going to pull off the great escape.
In most people's eyes, Fulham have been down for months now. Dire on the road, combined with ill-fortune and questionable refereeing had left Fulham staring squarely at Doncaster away next season. Even a mini resurgence under Roy Hodgson has not seen Fulham escape 19th place, yet the performances are improving and Fulham's remaining games are, on paper, considerably more favourable than their rivals. Just when the gap looks to be getting insurmountable they spring a surprise win. Great escapes are not uncommon in the Premiership; are Fulham to be the recipients of this season's miracle?
Make no mistake; Fulham's Premier League place is in considerable jeopardy. Already they are relying on favours from their exalted colleagues at the top end of the division, if they are to survive. However, consider their next opponents, Newcastle United, who in theory, don't have a particularly bad run-in. After Fulham, they host Reading and Sunderland, and trips to Portsmouth and West Ham are not the most terrifying the Premiership has to offer. However, there seems no end in sight to Newcastle's terrible form, and anything other than victory over Fulham really will have everyone from PJ and Duncan to Mike Ashley reaching for the panic button. On the other hand Fulham buoyed by a deserved win over Everton, will enter this game with considerably less fear than their hosts.
St James's Park was the last opposition ground they won on, and who would be surprised if Fulham can end this away-win-drought with the symmetry of it starting and finishing at Newcastle. In all probability it will be an awful game decided by a mistake or a piece of bad luck, and who seems unluckier at the moment? Newcastle United I think.
Even if Fulham lose at Newcastle, they still have winnable games remaining; Sunderland and Birmingham at home, Derby and Reading away. I'm not suggesting for a minute that these matches will be easy, but at least Fulham have the opportunity to take points from their direct opposition in the survival race, and have only one ‘big four'-type club to play – Liverpool at home. This certainly isn't the case at Bolton who visit Manchester United, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Chelsea (on the last day of the season). They also have to host Arsenal, and play only one direct relegation rival between now and the end of the season – Sunderland at home. Also, like Newcastle, they seem to be on something of a downer at the moment; failing to get at least a point against 10-man Wigan was a disaster.
The likes of Birmingham, Reading and Sunderland have mixed run-ins – enough games to ensure their survival if things go well, enough banana skins and near-certain defeats to anchor them at the foot until the very end of the season. Assuming these teams don't all enjoy unforeseen surges in form, there are enough tricky games in store for these sides to keep Fulham interested right until the end, if they can hold their end up.
It is interesting also to look at the last two games of the season each team face. Fulham play Birmingham at home and Portsmouth away, the latter likely to be against an opponent with little to play for, and maybe with half an eye on the FA Cup Final. By contrast Bolton are home to Sunderland and away to Chelsea., while Newcastle's final two matches are Chelsea at home and Everton away. Newcastle could certainly do with wrapping safety up prior to those matches, though this seems unlikely, and Sunderland would prefer to be home and hosed by game 37, given that 38 is Arsenal at home. Fulham and Bolton's penultimate games are the dictionary definition of a ‘six-pointer' – who will hold their nerve?
Victory over Everton has given Fulham a fighting chance. They couldn't be going to Newcastle at a better time, and an away win (it has to happen eventually!) would really edge Newcastle closer to the trapdoor, while moving them closer to safety. Of the bottom seven, they are the most improved over the past two months, and their record over the past eight games is superior to each of the main relegation candidates, all of whom they are still to play. Difficult it will be, but certainly not impossible.