The Tinkerman has much, much work to do.
After engineering the most unlikely story of the Premier League era with his title at Leicester City, Claudio Ranieri faces perhaps a more challenging task in keeping Fulham in the top flight starting with Saturday’s six-point belter with Southampton at Craven Cottage.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Ranieri is known the world over for his stunning Premier League title less than three years ago as his Midlands club built on counterattacking, a steel spine, and the 1-2 punch of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez overcame 5,000-to-1 odds to end the hegemony of the “Big Six” that dated to the days of Blackburn Rovers’ title in 1995.
Ranieri, though, failed to see his title defence through the following season, getting sacked as the Foxes struggled under the weight of the lofty expectations. The Italian, though, has been lured back to the Premier League by way of owner Shahid Khan, who sacked Slavisa Jokanovic after Fulham (1-2-9) limped into the international break last in the table with five points and a crushing minus-20 goal difference.
Ranieri, who is now with his third Premier League team after being the Chelsea manager when Roman Abramovich first bought the club back in 2003, completed one other successful rescue mission in 2007 with Serie A side Parma in Italy.
“When I arrived in Parma at the end of the February it was the same. All my friends said, ‘you are mad to go there, it’s not possible to save this team,'” Ranieri said at his introductory press conference last Saturday. “And I saved the team. At Cagliari, we went 1/8Serie 3/8 C, B, A. I love this kind of battle.”
The battle to save the Cottagers starts at the back, where they have shipped a league-worst 31 goals – the most of any side in Europe’s top five leagues. Their goal difference after 12 games is the third-worst in Premier League history, as is their five points. Fulham’s lone clean sheet in any competition this term was a 2-0 victory over League Two side Exeter City in their first Carabao Cup match, and they have yielded two or more goals in 10 of their 12 league contests.
“The objective at Fulham should never be to merely survive in the Premier League,” Ranieri said. “We must at all times be a difficult opponent and should expect to succeed. This Fulham squad has exceptional talent that is contrary to its position in the table. I know this team is very capable of better performances.”
How he gets those better performances will be the mystery. Ranieri does have a precocious talent in winger Ryan Sessegnon, whose confidence has taken a battering this season as the teenager has just one goal and one assist. He also has a reliable target forward in Aleksander Mitrovic and winger Andre Schurrle, who have combined for nine of Fulham’s 11 goals.
The Cottagers, though, have gone 326 minutes in league play without a goal and 416 in all competitions since Sessegnon’s marker against Cardiff City on Oct. 20. Fulham have lost six on the spin in league play and seven straight in all competitions.
Had Southampton (1-5-6) been less patient with Mark Hughes, it would not be totally implausible that Ranieri would have wound up in the opponents’ coaching box for this match. Hughes has been under fire most of this term as the Saints are above the drop only on goal difference over Cardiff City, yet they are only one point behind 14th-place Newcastle United.
Hughes and his side have been stewing throughout the international break, properly aggrieved at being denied a victory over Watford on an incorrect offsides call on Maya Yoshida in the 66th minute that negated Charlie Austin’s goal and would have given Southampton a 2-0 lead. Given the lifeline, the Hornets took full advantage with an equaliser eight minutes from time that left both goal-scorer and gaffer incandescent with rage post-match.
“We score a perfectly good goal, make it 2-0, game’s done and dusted. The officials cost us two points today,” Austin said immediately after the final whistle. “It’s a joke. We go on about VAR (video assistant referee) this, VAR that – help the officials out, clearly they need help.”
Hughes lamented the goal but also took the league to task for their choice of Simon Hooper – in charge of just his fourth Premier League match – as referee, saying, “Apparently, he (Hooper) thought Maya Yoshida had headed the ball in from an offside position, which is obviously ridiculous. If he thought that he shouldn’t have been there. He was an inexperienced referee . . . not up to the standard required. I hear they’ve admitted they got it wrong, but that’s no consolation to us.”
While it does them no favours now, the end result of the blown call is the Premier League have moved up their timetable to introduce VAR for next season.
Manolo Gabbiadini’s goal in the 20th minute ended a 615-minute drought without a goal in the run of play for Southampton dating back to Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s goal in a 2-2 draw with Brighton and Hove Albion on Sept. 17. The Saints’ two goals in league play during that stretch came courtesy of Danny Ings from the spot.
Hughes will be forced into one change to his starting XI for this match as talisman and left back Ryan Bertrand will sit out after picking up his fifth yellow card in the draw versus Watford. Matt Targett is the expected replacement there, while midfielder Mario Lemina picked up a knock on international duty with Gabon and is questionable.
Southampton ended Fulham’s FA Cup run last season with a 1-0 victory at Craven Cottage in the third round on a goal by James Ward-Prowse just before the half-hour. The Saints have won three on the bounce over Fulham and are unbeaten in the last six (3-3-0) overall. Southampton did the double over the Cottagers the last time both teams were in the top flight in 2013-14.
Per Ladbrokes, Fulham are slight favourites to make Ranieri a winner in his Cottagers debut at 31/20, with Southampton getting 17/10 odds to put some separation between themselves and the drop with a needed three points. A split of the points is the longshot among the options with 23/10 odds.
Though both teams have struggled to score of late, there are still 7/10 odds on both teams to find the back of the net in this contest. Accordingly, a Cottagers draw with more than 2.5 goals has 3/1 odds, with a 0-0 or 1-1 draw the second-most likely outcome according to oddsmakers at 13/4. A Saints victory over 2.5 goals is right behind that at 10/3, while a Fulham win by a 1-0 or 2-0 count has 19/4 odds. A reverse scoreline of the previous listing offers 5/1 odds for Southampton supporters, and a 2-2 draw or higher has 10/1 odds.
Mitrovic leads the line for the first goal-scoring choices at 9/2, followed by his teammate Schurrle and Southampton striker Ings at 5/1. Ings’ strike partner Austin has 11/2 odds, while Fulham’s Aboubakar Kamara and Southampton’s Gabbiadini are both 13/2 options.
The Serbian international is also the top choice to find a goal over 90 minutes at 8/5 odds, with Schurrle and Ings again joint-second at 7/4. Austin lurks just off the pair at 19/10, and Gabbiadini is at 11/5 — just ahead of Kamara at 23/10.
Usually, the Vatican requires proof of two miracles before canonization can take place. If Ranieri is able to rescue Fulham from their plight and keep them in the top flight for next season, then at the very least he should be referred to as “St. Claudio” for the rest of his football coaching days.
Make no mistake, this is a desperate situation for the Cottagers, who to Jokanovic’s credit, went down swinging on their identity to the very end until it became untenable. One can argue Fulham were hard done at Anfield as Mitrovic’s goal was disallowed by being offsides by a sliver before Alisson’s restart caught everyone off guard, but it still would have been a matter of “when” Liverpool score as opposed to “if” Liverpool score.
It is going to take Ranieri at least three matches to figure out what he has in terms of defence and midfielders. The attacking flanks are actually fairly well off with Sessegnon and Schurrle, and Mitrovic is a load up front. Comparisons to Leicester, however, cannot apply to Fulham since Ranieri does not have a keeper anywhere close to the quality of Kasper Schmeichel, and there are no twin towers in central defence similar to Wes Morgan and Robert Huth in the Midlands.
On the other side are Southampton, still far from safe both in terms of the table and Hughes’ job security. Whether the officiating debacle that led to their draw last match turns into a stay of execution is uncertain, the truth is the Saints are severely struggling offensively beyond Ings — himself on a dry run save his conversions from the spot. Southampton’s defence have been serviceable when not playing the “Big Six,” and that needs to continue to avoid the drop.
Still, it is hard to make any other conclusion other than Hughes could be gone by the turn of the calendar year if they do not make a move up the table.
Adrenaline from the coaching change may be enough to see Fulham scrape out a point, but how they defend — or do not defend — will be the talking point coming out of this contest.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Fulham 1, Southampton 1.
OTHER MATCH DAY 13 PREVIEWS:
West Ham United (3-3-6) vs. Manchester City (10-2-0)
Tottenham Hotspur (9-0-3) vs. Chelsea (8-4-0)
Bournemouth (6-2-4) vs. Arsenal (7-3-2)
Watford (6-2-4) vs. Liverpool (9-3-0)