Back in August when the Premier League started up, I had hopes only that Fulham would avoid a relegation battle as the Premier League season wound down. With six games to go in the League, not only to Fulham essentially assured of staying up, being 13 points above the relegation zone, but by sitting in 8th place in the league there is a slim hope that the Whites might find themselves in European play next year. The inaugural Europa League (essentially a re-branded UEFA Cup) is within sight.
England will have four champions league spots next year and it looks like Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea will get the three automatic group stages berths and Arsenel will have to play into the groups again next year. Normally, that would mean that the next two spots in the table, currently held by Aston Villa and Everton, would see Europa League spots. Fulham, sitting 8th but only one point beind 7th Place West Ham United, would be on the outside looking in.
But here is where things get interesting, there are two ways in which Fulham might find a place in at least the Europa league qualifiers. First, with the semi-finals of the FA Cup coming up this weekend, the four teams in the FA Cup semi-finals are Arsenel, Everton, Chelsea and Manchester United. The winner of the FA Cup gets an automatic berth in the Europa League. But if that team is in a league position where A) they have a Champions League berth or B) a Europa League Berth, and win the FA Cup, then the next elgible team gets a spot. With all four teams in the FA Cup currently sitting (comfortably) in a European spot, the 7th place team in the League is likely to get a European berth next year. Right now that is West Ham, but as I said there is only a single point between Fulham and West Ham (their run in schedules are below).
Now if Fulham finish 8th, not all hope is lost for European play. UEFA has a fair play spot available for the league and the team that demonstrates the best fair play through out the season. I don't know where the Premier League sits in the UEFA fair play rankings, but Fulham are top spot in the Premier League Fair Play Table. The calculations for the Fair Play spot are convoluted at best so I don't know how this would work out, but Fair Play is a possibility.
Fulham six game run in looks like this:
Away to Middlesbrough
Home to Stoke City
Away to Chelsea
Home to Aston Villa
Away to Newcastle
Home to Everton
I can see 9 to 11 points out of this set of fixtures. Fulham have been solid at the Cottage all year, so three points are probable from Stoke and maybe a point each from Aston Villa (whose form of late has been horrid) and Everton (tough to play anywhere) for five points at home and may be as many as 9 points (Villa and Everton look all but assured of European play so there will be little to play for). Away from home, three points from Middlesbrough seems possible given their shocking form. Chelsea is always tough at stamford Bridge and have looked good with Guus Hiddinck at the helm. A point may be the best to hope for, but not likely. Finally, Newcastle are tough in the Northeast and they may still be in the midst of a relegation battle, so a point would a good result but you never know which Newcastle team will show up so three points is not out of the realm of possibility. That would be 3 to 6 points on the road.
Factors in Fulham's favor. The starting 11 for the past three games has been the same and they are playing very well together. They look fit, not tired, and are really playing solid football (even the Liverpool last minute loss was a fine display of football).
West Ham's run-in looks like this (Iinterestingly enought, Fulham and West Ham will face five of the same teams in the last six rounds):
Away to Aston Villa
Home with Chelsea
Away to Stoke City
Home with Liverpool
Away to Everton
Home with Middlesbrough
This weekend, West Ham will face a wobbly Aston Villa at Villa Park. But the big difference between some of these games will be where they take place. West Ham face Stoke at the Brittania--a tough place to play--and Aston Villa at Villa Park, also not an easy place to play, and Everton away. Fulham plays those three teams at home. Additionally, with Liverpool on a cracking run of form (they scored four goals against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last night) and sniffing a Premier League title, there will be no quarter there. Chelsea is also looking like a possible title contender as well. The only three points I think should be in the bag will be the Middlesbrough match. I think West Ham manager Zola will be hard pressed to get a total of nine points from this fixture list.
Fulham have one other advantage--goal difference. Only three other teams in the Premier League (Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea) have conceeded fewer goals than Fulham who have given up only 28 goals all season. Sure, they have only scored 33, but that gives them a +5 Goal difference. West Ham have a +1 difference and are looking at the current goal machine of Liverpool as well, so a negative goal difference is not out of the realm of possibility.
In August of last year, I was simply hoping Fulham finished 12th or 13th in the league, now it looks like a European spot is not impossible. What a turnaround. A top half finish is great, and Europena spot would just be gravy.