Venue: Turf Moor
Referee: Martin Atkinson
In another incredibly important relegation six-pointer, a now-rejuvenated Burnley side host a lowly, confidence-drained Fulham, knowing that a win would put them seven points in front of the visitors.
In all competitions, it is now three wins in a row for Sean Dyche and Burnley, a run which included two extremely important wins against West Ham and Huddersfield, the latter coming away from home and will possibly become known as their most important result of the season.
It has of course been a disappointing season far for the Clarets; after a seventh-place finish last season this has proven to be an entirely different campaign, with key areas not strengthened in the summer and weaknesses exposed badly in an extremely disappointing Europa League campaign.
It was only three league games ago where alarm bells were loudly ringing for Dyche’s team, where they were humbled by a 5-1 home defeat to Everton, but the reaction, and the subsequent surge away from the relegation zone will give the management and fans a fair bit more optimism.
The timing of said surge of form must be greatly appreciated by Sean Dyche in particular – although rightfully placed on a pedestal by Burnley’s fans and players for all the work he has done for the club, there were murmurs of discontent from minority portions of the fan-base at the less than convincing performances.
It will be interesting to see how Dyche and the club in general deal with the January transfer-window: although Dyche has become known for his more traditional, home-grown approach to signings (sixteen out of the twenty-five man squad are English, twenty from the United Kingdom), the market, especially in January, is greatly inflated in regards to English talent.
There are suggestions that, to increase their attacking threat, a return for Jay Rodriguez is being lined-up, but his transfer fee and wages from West Brom would not be cheap – would a foreign option be more financially viable?
Just when you think Fulham have reached their season-low moment, they fight back and surprise everybody, even themselves. Their FA Cup home defeat to League Two side Oldham Athletic has the potential to seriously damage their entire season, damage it further than already demonstrated.
Frighteningly, it wasn’t a bad team that Ranieri had selected to face the minnows; perhaps deploying winger Luciano Vietto and midfielder Tom Cairney up front as a partnership was slightly unconventional, but this was still a team that had Jean Michaël Seri, Maxime Le Marchand and Calum Chambers in it – Ranieri was looking for players to give him a headache for the weekend’s selection and unfortunately, they let themselves down badly. Even Aleksander Mitrovic, the talisman target-man up front, came off the bench and missed a penalty with his first touch, an indication for the type of day Fulham were having.
Fulham know that they need new players in this January window – Ranieri knows it, the board know it, the fans know it, the players probably know it too. They are potentially still at a point where, despite their lowly league position, they can attract the kind of players needed to stay up, but they need them now, they needed them the first of January, they needed them before the season even started.
The fear is that a loss to Burnley this weekend could give the impression that Fulham are beginning to be cut adrift inside the relegation zone, and who will join then?
In the next four matches, Fulham play Burnley, Brighton and Crystal Palace – by the time they play Palace it will be the second of February, and it will need to be a vastly improved Fulham side, both in personnel and in attitude, if they are to have any optimism about surviving the drop.
It is scary to consider but this is absolutely last chance saloon for Fulham: not only do they absolutely need to sign new players, they have to get those signings right, something which they totally failed at in the summer.
Chucking money in every direction is unlikely to make the situation better – signing two or three players of the right calibre, of the right position, will give the sense that the club have paid attention to past errors, while signing seven or eight players of wildly varying quality will demonstrate that, despite all the mistakes, lessons have not been learnt.
Burnley don’t have many injury concerns before this crucial match, only ones relating to the selection of fit personnel. Robbie Brady is of course suspended after his late lunge to stop a counter-attack against Huddersfield – a necessary evil of the modern game but perhaps one which Brady did not need to perform with such vigour (or with such a grin afterwards).
It may be as you were then for Burnley; the striking partnership of Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood both scored in that 2-1 win over Huddersfield and it would be a surprise if that was changed for this encounter – the only cause for concern is that a relatively strong team struggled to see of Barnsley in the FA Cup until past the 90th minute, giving Dyche cause for concern. In comparison to Fulham’s own FA Cup struggles, however, and Burnley will simply be happy for progressing at all.
After their dire performance against Oldham, perhaps Ranieri has a simpler team-selection than one might initially think. The players whose chance it was to stake a claim in that FA Cup tie did not do so with any great urgency or passion, leading Ranieri to say afterwards that he ‘did not see the desire’ from those fringe players.
What to do about the more established players though, the players like Calum Chambers and Maxime Le Marchand, who should be more than capable of keeping a side such as Oldham away from scoring and who failed, as they have been in the Premier League all season. Until defensive signings are made these sort of senior players are going to have to keep being selected – it is less a showing of faith and more of a lack of choice.
Predicted Starting XIs
Burnley (4-4-2): Heaton; Taylor, Tarkowski, Mee, Bardsley; McNeil, Cork, Westwood, Gudmonsson; Barnes, Wood.
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Rico; Bryan, Odoi, Mawson, Christie; Seri, Chambers; Sessegnon, Cairney, Schürrle; Mitrovic.
Prediction: Burnley 2 Fulham 0
It is extremely hard to be optimistic about Fulham at this stage of the season, not without signings happening dramatically and quickly. Rumours are abound that they are to sign Gary Cahill, Victor Moses, Danny Drinkwater – they’re getting linked with the right players but rumours are not materialising into signings quickly enough.
Burnley are rediscovering their form at precisely the right time and will have home advantage on their side as well – Sean Dyche’s side are, historically, exactly the wrong kind of away trip to be faced with for a team as desperate for points as Fulham are.
Burnley are a professional outfit and unless a huge flurry of statement signings are made by Fulham before the game, fit and ready to go signings that is, then a professional job will be inflicted on Claudio Ranieri’s side. The gap is wide enough as it is between the two sides – a win for Burnley would make things insurmountable for the Cottagers.