Right then, as the buildup to this weekend's game continues, we're continuing our coverage from all angles by bringing you some thoughts from a Fulham perspective in Fan Focus.
This week we've spoken to Kristian Balkin from SB Nation's very own Fulham blog, Cottagers Confidential. Kristian has been kind enough to answer our nagging questions, so here's his views on all things Fulham. Their European adventure, their star performers of the season and how they think they hold an advantage over us in this game...
How do you feel Fulham have done this season, and how does the performance compare to your pre-season expectation?
Kristian: Our European campaign was disappointing and somewhat arduous, and it's been a tarnish on our season ever since. We started competitively in June, which, for the players, was tough, and there is a feeling that we should have held our own throughout the group stages. We finished third after conceding in the dying moments of our final group game and after doing so well in 2009/10, it felt like something of a failure. In the league we have fared better but we've made no progress, as such since Hodgson was in charge. Martin Jol clearly has plans for us and it's nice to see them come to fruition but the better we do, it seems, the more likely it is that our best players will end up leaving.
It's clear that Clint Dempsey has had yet another fantastic season, but who else would you pick out as standout performers for the side?
Kristian: As you say, Dempsey has been fantastic this year and has proved our main goal scorer despite not playing as an out-and-out forward. Danny Murphy, as he has always seemed to over the past few years, has gone unnoticed for his genuine influence on the club. When he doesn't play we are an entirely different club and he deserves some rather vast recognition for what he has done for Fulham over the years. As captain, he is an inspirational leader and you won't find many better passers of the ball. There's Moussa Dembele too, who, as he's shown since joining last year, is a specialist with the ball at his feet. He can create something out of nothing but, unfortunately, like Dempsey, he'll probably be poached over the summer.
What do Fulham need to add to make a push further up the league next season, and any names in particular you'd like to see a the club?
Kristian: It's difficult to say because there's a club-wide assumption that both Dempsey and Dembele will be Fulham players to more after this season so, I guess to start with we'd have to replace them. As long as we bring in an effective striker - as well as signing Pavel Pogrebnyak, who has been brilliant since signing - we can cover Dempsey's scoring antics, just not his role in midfield. We've been linked with players in the ilk of Lucas Barrios of Dortmund and while it seems a tad aloof to be targeting them, there's no doubt someone of his quality would complement the Pog wonderfully. We could do with a more consistent right back, although hopefully the return of Zdenek Grygera from injury will cover that issue, while Dembele could be replaced from within by Kerim Frei, who has been sensational when he's played. To summarise, the key areas are upfront and in the replacement of whomever we lose.
I'd consider ourselves and Fulham both in that perennial mid-table of the Premier League. What do you think is the absolute maximum limit to what Fulham can achieve, and similarly Sunderland?
Kristian: I rate Martin O'Neill highly and with him at the helm, you can definitely complete in the Premier League's higher echelons. He can achieve similar feats with Sunderland as he did with Aston Villa because the squads aren't overly mismatched. Top six isn't beyond you guys, it's just with the clubs that are competing up there, that job is ten times more difficult now. The same, I feel, applies to us, the only difference being is that it's a given that we will lose the quality players that take us wherever we go. We could, if Jol's ideologies go to plan, attain a top six place but I don't think any success will ever become consistent.
We're getting in to the final stretch of the season now, are Fulham looking like their still up for it or do a few players look like they have their minds on holiday already?
Kristian: We've always been a side, for some reason, that play better at this time of year than at any other. Our away form, generally dismal and depressing, picks up in the latter stages of the season and the lack of pressure, after confirming safety, seems to have a revitalising effect on the Fulham players. That said, Jol openly admitted last week that he's struggling to provide inspiration in his team talks because there's so little to play for this season. I think the lack of urgency will bring the best, and unfortunately the worst (we saw this at Everton on Saturday) out of us.
Form's been patchy recently, do you see a particular weakness in the Sunderland side which you think gives Fulham the upper hand?
Kristian: I think you've certainly lost that new-manager-momentum that you had but I don't think the weakness and lack of form goes any deeper than that. If I had to pick holes in your team it would only be in the strike force, which isn't as potent as it could be, but O'Neill will undoubtedly address that. The only genuine advantage I see us having in this game is home advantage.
On the flip side, is there a particular area of the Fulham side you feel could be exposed by any of our players, and who from our side gives you a worry (if any?)
Kristian: We're so inconsistent that it's tough to pinpoint where - and in some cases when - we can be exploited. Our defence is strong and yet it can concede four in one go out of nowhere, but I would argue this is more through mentality than any lack of talent. Maybe, if Phillipe Senderos starts ahead of Aaron Hughes, who have someone to target that is perhaps not in fine form, but otherwise, I see our back line standing firm. If there's no Murphy you may well dominate the midfield, but then again, if Dembele starts in the middle and has one of his better days, you may not even see the ball. One moment we can be all over the place and the next we can be beautifully refined and classy. You'll just have to hope you find us on a messy day.
Lastly, what's your prediction for the game, and can you predict the score?
Kristian: I think we'll win, more through the fact we're at home than anything else. Jol has made it clear that finishing seventh is a realistic target and I think the boys will react and put in a good shift. 2-0 sounds about right to me.
Many thanks to Kristian, and for all your Fulham needs head to Cottagers Confidential.