Tigana tiring as Fulham slip into reverse

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The Independent Football

In the week he is the manager of a side making major strides in Europe, at the weekend the same players are moving backwards in the Premiership after an encouraging start to the season. No wonder Fulham's Jean Tigana rates today's encounter with Birmingham as one of the biggest games of his managerial career, and that includes a Champions' League semi-final against Juventus when he was in charge of Monaco.

In the week he is the manager of a side making major strides in Europe, at the weekend the same players are moving backwards in the Premiership after an encouraging start to the season. No wonder Fulham's Jean Tigana rates today's encounter with Birmingham as one of the biggest games of his managerial career, and that includes a Champions' League semi-final against Juventus when he was in charge of Monaco.

Despite earning a Uefa Cup third-round tie against Hertha Berlin after defeating Croatia Zagreb 5-1 on aggregate, the homeless Cottagers have tumbled to four successive league defeats. Tigana, who has already indicated he could quit when his contract expires in the summer, feels the game at St Andrews is the most important match of his two-year reign at Fulham.

"For me it's like the semi-final of the European Cup," he said. "That's the level this game is for me. It's not a problem that we're away rather than at home, we just have to win."

The team's promising start to the season has faded rapidly, with Tigana's side just above the relegation zone on 15 points, along with Birmingham. Indeed, Tigana has been unusually vocal in his criticism of his players, particularly their concentration, communication and performance in front of goal.

He added: "We had some difficulties in midfield on Thursday. As for the move when Zagreb scored their goal, no one in our midfield won the ball from them. We had problems, but I know why that was and how it's possible to progress. But I'll only discuss that with my players."

The Frenchman also criticised out-of-favour midfielders John Collins and Lee Clark, who both revealed last week they could quit the club when the mid-season transfer window opens in January, for their decision to publicise their dissatisfaction.

"I have meetings with players in my office and if they say too much that's difficult for them not me," he said. "I always keep discussions with a player private. That's how you have a good relationship with them. The transfer market is not easy at the moment and I don't know if anyone will be leaving in January."

One player who certainly will not be leaving his club in the new year is the Blackburn goalkeeper Brad Friedel, one of the Premiership's most consistent performers this season. But he will be out following today's match with Everton at Ewood Park, with the player going straight to hospital for knee surgery.

The United States international, however, believes he may only miss one match, next Sunday's visit to Charlton, and has pencilled in a return the following Saturday when Blackburn face Fulham.

"I don't feel comfortable in day-to-day life or playing at the moment," he said. "It is not very nice when you can't even straighten out your leg."

The cartilage injury came to light last month during the warm-up against Arsenal. He fortunately decided to play on and was the key figure in Blackburn's 2-1 victory.

Losing Friedel even for only a brief period is a blow to Blackburn, who have made a bright start to the season despite their Uefa Cup defeat by Celtic. He has chalked up five clean sheets in the campaign and given a string of outstanding displays.

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