Suddenly the FA Cup is upon us again and the search for a plausible outsider begins. And, if there is such a thing as smart money in football, the case for Fulham became more convincing on Saturday.
Although Martin Jol's team have a tough assignment away to Everton on Friday, they seemed to go up a gear in disposing of Alan Pardew's hitherto obdurate Newcastle United. It was a devastating burst of sustained counter-attack that brought four goals in 17 minutes and transformed the mood around Craven Cottage. At the interval, gloom shrouded the riverside ground. Fulham trailed to a goal that, though splendidly struck by Danny Guthrie, owed much to the dawdling of Bryan Ruiz. The previous match had brought defeat at the hands of a 10-man Blackburn Rovers. Were we witnessing the disintegration of the Jol regime?
The resonance of the answer, devised during what may have been a lively interval in the home dressing room, should set Fulham up for the rest of the season – if they can keep together a three-man strike force that, on the form displayed during Saturday's purple patch, could be the equal of any in the Cup.
The trouble is that Andy Johnson, who replaced the injured Steve Sidwell, Bobby Zamora and Clint Dempsey are all bound to interest predators over the remaining days of January. If all can be kept, a Cup run beckons. If not, we shall be reminded of what Mark Hughes said about ambition as he left, eventually to join Queen's Park Rangers.
We shall know by the time Fulham travel to Loftus Road in late February for what, given the 6-0 win Jol's side recorded in their home match against a less moneyed QPR in October, should be a local event and a half.
If Zamora, say, is in the QPR team, a feeling that Hughes has been vindicated will be hard to banish. But Zamora, just 31, could not find much finer football than that he has helped to make in three and a half years at the Cottage: the comeback against Juventus and continued progress to the Uefa Cup final, the victories over Manchester United. And the ingredients are all still there. The destruction of Newcastle proved it. Even the immaculate service of Danny Murphy endures when, as in the second half on Saturday, he has the defensive awareness of a Chris Baird alongside him.
This is a force that, if kept together, could pass Loftus Road on its way to Wembley. Not that Newcastle can be discounted on the basis of a defeat that, as well as rare, was oddly emphatic; as Pardew pointed out, his back four had never before been as easy to penetrate in a season during which his own excellent work has been reflected in speculation about the England job.
Before Saturday, Newcastle appeared a more than decent bet to go far in the Cup. They have a winnable tie at Brighton on Saturday and a manager who, when with West Ham United, went desperately close to lifting the trophy at the Millennium Stadium in 2006; like Carlo Ancelotti with Milan in Istanbul a year earlier, he succumbed to the curse of Steven Gerrard and Liverpool prevailed on penalties. Where Newcastle suffered at Fulham was up front, where the absence of Demba Ba on African Cup of Nations duty was felt. They were dominant enough to have been two ahead at the interval but, without the destroyer of Manchester United and much more, remained vulnerable to the change of tactics dictated by Jol.
How will they recover? "We need to focus on the FA Cup match now," Pardew said, and no astute manager of Newcastle will ever take lightly the competition that has meant so much to the club's following since it was won three times in the 1950s.
If the Magpies can survive the trip to Brighton, Ba will have returned (subject to his own fate in the transfer window), andCheick Tioté (ditto), and the newcomer Papiss Cissé. Before the third round, Newcastle seemed tempting at 40-1. Ladbrokes are now quoting 20-1. Which makes Fulham attractive at 25-1.
Fulham: STOCKDALE 7/10; KELLY 6; SENDEROS 5; HANGELAND 7; J RIISE 6; RUIZ 5; MURPHY 8; DEMPSEY 8; SIDWELL 6; DUFF 6; ZAMORA 7
Newcastle: KRUL 6; SANTON 4; COLOCCINI 5; WILLIAMSON 5; SIMPSON 6; GUTHRIE 6; CABAYE 5; GUTIERREZ 6; BEST 6; BEN ARFA 6; SHOLA AMEOBI 6
Scorers: Fulham Murphy pen 52, Dempsey 59, 65, 89, Zamora pen 68. Newcastle United Guthrie 43, Ben Arfa 85.
Substitutes: Fulham Johnson 8 (Sidwell, 37), Baird 6 (Ruiz, h-t), Frei (Dempsey, 90). Newcastle Perch (Guthrie, 76), Gosling (Cabaye, 84), R Taylor (Best, 86).
Booked: Fulham None. Newcastle Santon, Guthrie, Simpson, Krul. Man of the match Dempsey. Match rating 8/10. Possession: Fulham 52% Newcastle 48%.
Attempts on target: Fulham 7 Newcastle 9.
Referee L Mason (Lancashire). Attendance 25,692.