Fulham’s Premier League hopes rest on history repeating itself

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“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions.” -Niccolo Machiavelli

In 2008, Fulham FC produced one of the greatest three-match stretches the bottom of the Premier League table has ever seen. In what is known throughout Fulham lore as The Great Escape, the club retained its Premier League status.

With just the disastrously poor Derby County below them in the table and the club five points from safety, Fulham popped off consecutive season-ending wins against Manchester City, Birmingham City, and Portsmouth to avoid relegation.

The win over Manchester City was nothing short of a miracle. Down 2-0 after just 21 minutes, 64th-minute substitute Diomansy Kamara produced a double for the ages along with a penalty from Danny Murphy to begin their mountain climb.

It was a David Tyree moment, one that will live in club history no matter where Kamara’s career were to take him in the aftermath (namely, nowhere).

Then, after a comprehensive 2-0 win over Birmingham behind goals from American Brian McBride and Erik Nevland, it was set up for the final match of the season.

With Fulham and Reading tied on points and Reading scheduled to take on hapless Derby, it was win and you’re in, lose and you’re almost certainly down.

They did it, as Murphy’s 76th-minute header was enough to put Fulham past Portsmouth and the Great Escape was complete.  Just two years later, under Roy Hodgson’s guidance, the team would go on to defeat Juventus in by far the club’s greatest-ever win and eventually make the Europa League final.

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American striker Brian McBride was a key component in Fulham’s 2007/2008 Great Escape, saving the club from the drop.

All of this is in the history books. It’s done and dusted. But it’s still relevent.

Why? Well, this year the Whites find themselves in a undeniably similar position.

Almost eerily so.

Having risen so far from their position of relegation that fateful 2008 spring, the club on the River Thames now finds itself again staring the drop in the face.  This time around they are bottom, without the cushion of a Derby County to buffer them from the basement.

But with a trip to Manchester City next on the fixture list, things are looking similar to their Great Escape. At the time of the 2008 City match, Fulham were five points back of safety. Currently, they sit four back of Crystal Palace in 17th, but it might as well be five given their horrific -35 goal differential which will be virtually impossible to overcome.

And who was the man in goal when Kamara rifled home the winner six years ago? A 20-year-old Joe Hart, who now ironically plays for Hodgson on the England squad.

This time around, there are plenty more matches for Fulham to pick up points before the end, including crucial 6-pointers against Norwich City and Crystal Palace.

No, the problem this time around isn’t time, even if they are running out of clock fast. The problem is simple: they’re not very good.

Fulham don’t pass the eye test. In fact, they flunk it quite miserably. They had a massive opportunity against fellow relegation candidates Cardiff City, in which three points would have put them in a pole position to escape.  Instead, they were beaten up and down the pitch in a disappointing 3-1 loss to a team that hadn’t scored in five games.

Thing is, that 2008 team wasn’t very good either, and they burned chance after chance to save themselves much before the home stretch.

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If Fulham replicate their Great Escape this season, Ashkan Dejagah’s winner against Newcastle could get lost in the story.

On March 29, 2008 they took on Derby County – proud owner of just one win all season and 10 total points – and conceded an 80th minute goal to draw 2-2 and drop 2 critical points.  Or like on February 9, when Fulham fell 1-0 to Middlesbrough who ended the year just 3 points above the drop.

Go back even farther, and it took Hodgson (appointed on December 30 for the fired Lawrie Sanchez) nine matches to earn his first win.

But, there’s hope. With the club’s official Twitter account essentially spamming the hashtag “#believe”  the past few weeks, they went out and firmly defeated a Newcastle club mired in turmoil. Despite the slim 1-0 scoreline, Newcastle hardly threatened and Fulham picked up their first win under Felix Magath, first league win since New Years Day, and first league clean sheet since December 8.

And that, too, has precedent from six years ago.

Two weeks before the miracle at Manchester City, on April 12, Fulham soundly put Reading to rest on the road 2-0 (again from Nevland and McBride) to plant the seeds of what would come. They’d fall 2-0 at eventual Champions League runners up Liverpool the next week, but the Reading match was an incredibly important fixture.

Often overlooked for the flashier three-game season-ending stretch when narratives of the Great Escape are recalled, the win at Reading was an enormous victory. They led nearly the whole way, and rattled the crossbar three times outside of their two goals. The victory was their first in the league away from home all season, and their fourth league clean sheet of the campaign.

The similarities are there. The opportunities are there.

Make no mistake: at the moment, Fulham are a very safe bet to be playing in the Championship next season. The point is, that’s also what we thought in the spring of 2008.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.

Mourinho looks to pile title pressure on Chelsea

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A week ago, just before their 2017/18 Premier League season began, Antonio Conte declared Chelsea to be an underdog for the title. It’s right not to put Chelsea to be a favorite,” Conte said.

Jose Mourinho disagrees.

Looking to deflect pressure away from his Manchester United squad, Mourinho declared Chelsea to not only be the favorites to win the Premier League this season and defend their title, but proclaimed it would be a massive disappointment if they didn’t.

[ MORE: Liverpool in an advantageous position regarding Coutinho ]

To Mourinho, the simple fact that Chelsea won last season means they should consider themselves the team to beat going forward. “For me the favorite is the champion,” Mourinho said in his pre-match press conference ahead of Manchester United’s game against Swansea City on Saturday. “Always. Because for some reason [they were] the champion. It doesn’t mean you are going to win it – I think it is the stamp that you have when you are champion, it is that the next season you are the favorite.”

Chelsea seems to have a depth issue at the moment, with injuries plaguing the squad. New signing Tiemoue Bakayoko leaves a big hole in midfield, especially with Nemanja Matic sold to the Red Devils. In addition, Gary Cahill and Pedro will miss time in the near future with suspensions, while superstar Eden Hazard remains out as he recovers from a broken ankle.

Despite all the missing players, Mourinho believes that Chelsea always comes through in the transfer window, and that will solve their problems. “If they have [depth problems], in a couple of weeks the problems are over. They have very good teams, very good players and I don’t see any reason for them not to be fighting for the title.”

Manchester United next meets Chelsea on November 5th in Premier League action at Stamford Bridge.

LA Galaxy offloads Jelle van Damme to native Belgium

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The 2017 season continues to punch LA Galaxy fans right in the gut.

With the club near the basement of the Western Conference standings, the LA Galaxy have officially announced the sale of defensive rock Jelle van Damme to Royal Antwerp of the Belgian top flight. The club confirmed a transfer fee of $235,000.

While van Damme is 33 years old, the sale of fan-favorite van Damme is still a blow both on and off the pitch. With the Galaxy in a period of transition, van Damme was a likeable personality who was known for leaving it all out on the field on gamedays.

The official news release of the transfer made it clear the club did not initiate the transfer with the intention to sell, but instead the player himself requested a return home as his career comes nearer to a close. Van Damme is from Lokeren, Belgium, a town between Antwerp and Ghent.

“Jelle came to us and requested to return home to Belgium to be closer to his children,” LA Galaxy General Manager Pete Vagenas told LAGalaxy.com. “We worked closely with Jelle and Royal Antwerp so that we could make this move possible for Jelle and his family. Our top priority remains the success of the LA Galaxy. We thank him for his time with our club and wish him the best going forward.”

Van Damme joined the Galaxy in early 2016 on a free transfer from Belgian giants Standard Liege. He made 55 total appearances across all competitions, including 46 in league play and another three in the playoffs. The defender’s contract was set to expire in December.

The team has taken a total nosedive in the last two months. Without a league win since June 21st against Colorado, the Galaxy have collected just a single point in league play, and they currently sit just a point off the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho saga

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In a time of heightening player control in a rapidly expanding transfer market, one club sticks out as grasping a clear understanding of the shifting business landscape and how to retain its grip on its most valuable assets.

Following the sudden departure of superstar playmaker Neymar, Barcelona is trying desperately to pry Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool. On Friday, numerous reports in England claimed that Barcelona had gone in with a third bid, one even more ridiculous than the previous two. But they’re fighting a losing battle.

For a number of reasons, the Reds hold complete control over Philippe Coutinho’s transfer saga, a saga that will likely end with no transfer having been completed.

First and foremost, Coutinho just recently signed a contract extension in January that runs through 2022. As far as we know, there is no release clause in the deal, meaning at the most basic of levels, Liverpool maintains contractual control. However, as we’ve seen the past few years, that alone hasn’t stopped a number of players forcing their way out.

Yet this time, Liverpool finds itself in an advantageous position outside of just the contract. With the 2018 World Cup right around the corner, the Reds know that should they force Coutinho to stay, he is obligated to play at his best, knowing that any less would see him miss out on a spot in the packed Brazil roster, or at the least a starting position. Thus, Liverpool can be sure that even if their denial of his departure renders him despondent, he will likely remain the quality player he has proven to be.

The money Barcelona is offering – a whopping $151 million according to the most recent reports – is indeed a ludicrous amount for a player who, while quality, does not have nearly the marketability of his countrymate now residing in Paris. On talent alone, Coutinho likely isn’t worth that total, meaning Liverpool should sell. And yet, even with that cash in hand, in this hyper-inflated market where more is less, could it really do justice in replacing his impact in the club? This late in the transfer window, there’s no chance they could replace the 25-year-old, meaning they’d likely be torpedoing their entire season – Champions League included – to feel the warmth of $151 million burning a hole in their pocket until January, or even next summer.

Liverpool has built its entire roster around Coutinho. The arrival of Salah, the use of Firmino, the wide deployment of Mane, the makeup of the midfield. He’s good enough and young enough to be considered a “franchise player.” In two games without Coutinho this season, they’ve scored five goals, but that is a poor metric to describe the 180 wild minutes. The money alone isn’t worth the cost of his departure.

It’s quite possible that Barcelona’s stubbornness, brought on by the sudden loss of a beloved player and the meteoric rise of their rivals to all-time greatness, could see the Catalans come back with an even more preposterous bid. It’s true every player has a value, and at some point, should Barcelona’s blind rage see them flail wildly into the transfer window, the Reds should sell, and will. But with Fenway Sports Group not in dire need of cash and in an advantageous position, in all likelihood they won’t. Barcelona can throw all the Neymar money at Liverpool their heart desires, but nothing will force the Reds to budge.