Fulham and Sunderland both have stronger squads than last season, which is why neither will be in relegation trouble. So said Roy Hodgson after his club shared a draw with the Wearsiders at Craven Cottage on Saturday.
A glance at the teamsheet confirms the veracity of the first claim, but the second is not proven. The standard of the Premier League rises every season, largely due to the constant raids on overseas talent. This means relegation usually befalls promoted clubs, who have too great a gulf to bridge, second-season promoted clubs which have failed to invest (West Bromwich 2005-06, Reading 2007-08), or a more established club which has been beset by management instability (Southampton 2004-05, Charlton 2006-07). The only exceptions to the above in the last five years were Leeds (2003-04) who were in financial meltdown, and Birmingham City (2005-06).
Birmingham went down because of the promoted clubs Wigan unexpectedly prospered while West Ham justified a reputation for quality. Hull's startling start suggest they could be another Wigan while West Bromwich's promising opening indicates they could emulate West Ham. Which means a lot of clubs that had been looking upwards have reason to be nervous. Suddenly mild improvement may not be enough.
Hodgson insisted he was not worried but his and his players' relief at ending a run of four defeats was obvious enough. Grabbing a point after being outplayed at home by mid-table opposition is rarely a cause for satisfaction but Mark Schwarzer (below) admitted: "Today was all about not conceding and not losing. We wanted to stop the rot."
Hodgson had good reason to be relieved. Fulham's passing game is dependent on confidence. At the start of the season they were playing well without sufficient reward, yesterday the reverse occurred. But while a goalless draw lifts self-belief at the back it does nothing for a £15m strike partnership which has yet to get a goal. When Hodgson signed Bobby Zamora and Andrew Johnson the concern was that both are confidence players who score in streaks. They may be hardworking but when both are out of touch Hodgson has a problem. "They worked hard, and did the right things, but they do need a goal," he admitted of the pair. They have scored a league goal apiece since January.
The player who deserved a goal most was Kieran Richardson. A first-half free-kick struck the woodwork three times. In the second half he scored only for the referee to penalise Pascal Chimbonda's interference with the wall. "It feels like I am the unluckiest person on the pitch," said Richardson. "I've seen the 'goal' played back and there was nothing [wrong] as far as I'm concerned."
Roy Keane, to his credit, was not interested in pursuing the issue. He was more eager to highlight his team's impressive progress in his 26 months in charge. Keane's constant upgrading of his squad ought to be enough to ensure safety come May, as should Hodgson's summer investment, but neither man can afford to be complacent.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Davies, Murphy, Bullard, Gera (Dempsey, 73); Zamora, Johnson. Substitutes not used: Zuberbuhler (gk), Nevland, Gray, Andreasen, Kallio, Baird.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Chimbonda, Ferdinand, Collins, McCartney; Malbranque, Leadbitter (Reid, 62), Whitehead, Richardson; Cisse (Murphy, 84), Chopra (Healy, 69). Substitutes not used: Fulop (gk), Bardsley, Tainio, Diouf.
Referee: K Stroud (Hampshire).
Booked: Fulham: Murphy; Sunderland: Malbranque.
Man of the match: Hangeland.
Attendance: 25,116.Reuse content