Venue: Craven Cottage
Referee: Graham Scott
TV: Sky Sports Main Event
Fulham, once again in turmoil after sacking first-team manager Claudio Ranieri, have the daunting task of hosting a Chelsea side who have seen an upturn in form after comfortably beating Tottenham this Sunday.
Many expected Marizio Sarri to have left Chelsea by now with the defeat in the Carabao Cup final was assumed to be the last chance by many. However, Sarri’s decision to drop Kepa Arrizabalaga after his now well-documented insubordination has seemed to have worked in the manager’s favour.
For Fulham however, there is a sense of having been here before in the very recent future. It was a mere sixteen games ago that Ranieri made his explosive 3-2 win against Southampton, and it was against the same opposition that his reign ended with an incredibly meek performance consigning his team to a 2-0 defeat – their eleventh loss in those sixteen games. The fans had turned on Ranieri and his overly cautious tactics even if the Italian did warn everybody about when first joining. The midfield three of McDonald, Anguissa and Chambers was the final straw for fans who wanted to see some attacking intent and ambition.
Could it be said that Ranieri’s sacking was harsh? With only three signings in January, and only one of those in the much-needed defensive area, it could be said that Ranieri was not backed in the same way as Slaviša Jokanović was in the summer (although everybody has seen how those signings have turned out). Despite this, it is hard to argue with the logic behind this latest Fulham sacking. Ranieri’s sacking is a pretty transparent admission from the hierarchy that relegation is almost a certainty at this point and that, with a rebuilding needed in the Championship, Ranieri was not the man they wanted to oversee that particular overhaul.
Still, it is probably the end for Ranieri’s Premier League journey and it is an extremely sad one considering what he has achieved, especially in 2016. He gave Leicester fans and, subsequently, all of the fans of the lower leagues and mid-table Premier League sides, the hope that one day a miracle really could happen to them. Ranieri will hope that this Fulham reign will be, in comparison, forgotten rather more quickly.
The obituaries for Marizio Sarri were written, prepared and ready to publish when Chelsea lined-up in the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City and yet here he will be, leading Chelsea out against Fulham two games later. His survival could, as mentioned earlier, be down to his public humiliation, followed by his show of strength, in reaction to the increasingly embarrassing Arrizabalaga substitute saga. His team performed well against Manchester City and, if that farcical situation hadn’t happened minutes before the penalty shootout, perhaps they would have won the game as well.
The last two performances have absolutely done their part in keeping Sarri on as well – the manager got it absolutely right when nullifying City’s main threats and their 2-0 win over Spurs showed a growing maturity and unison in this Chelsea camp, a unity that was not there only a few weeks ago.
Many onlookers, myself included, are curious to see whether ‘Sarri-ball’ actually has a chance of succeeding in England. The fans have protested against the style of play and it is quite clear that there has been some resistance to Sarri’s philosophy from some members of the team, making it unclear as to whether we have seen ‘Sarri-ball’ at its fullest and best yet with this Chelsea team.
Will Sarri have the time to implement his style? Does he have the players capable of carrying out his philosophy? Sarri has felt on borrowed time for weeks now, maybe even months, but he has hung in there and who knows how the mood will be around Stamford Bridge come this summer if their form surges to a satisfying conclusion.
Fulham’s caretaker manager, Scott Parker, is likely to conform to the wishes of the fans, and the philosophies of recent and successful Fulham sides, by choosing an attacking line-up to face Chelsea. The three defensive midfielders chosen by Ranieri in his final game drew much criticism from the supporters, and perhaps Parker will seek to immediately rectify this, probably by bringing Jean Michaël Seri back in to add some creative spark.
Ryan Sessegnon, the fan favourite wonder-kid, will probably see increased action under Parker as well as Fulham seek to rebuild themselves and their reputation to suit young, exciting talent. Alfie Mawson, the summer signing from Swansea, is still unavailable through injury.
The obvious question that faces Sarri is whether to drop Kepa again in foavour of Willy Caballero. Caballero did not do anything wrong particularly against Tottenham although in truth he was barely called into action.
It seems relatively low-risk to keep him in, while bringing Kepa back after just one game risks undermining Sarri’s message to the dressing room. Fulham are unlikely to test either keeper, so Sarri’s must decide whether or not to punish Kepa further rather than decide who is best suited for the task at hand.
Predicted Starting XIs
Fulham (5-2-3): Rico; Christie, Odoi, Ream, Nordtveit, Bryan; Chambers, Seri; Sessegnon, Babel, Mitrovic.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Caballero; Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Luiz, Ederson; Jorginho, Kante, Kovacic; Pedro, Hazard, Higuain.
Score Prediction: Fulham 1 Chelsea 3
Despite a new manager and the general consensus that Chelsea are still in a bit of a crisis of confidence, it is hard to underestimate any side that is up against this Fulham team, especially one with top four ambitions. Scott Parker is known as an excellent motivator but he is unlikely to suddenly make men of some of these Fulham boys, especially their many summer signings who are all already thinking of another summer transfer. This Chelsea team isn’t perfect but they showed resolve and spirit to beat Tottenham in their last game and they should comfortably dispatch this Fulham team.