LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 04: Fulham's Clint Dempsey.celebrates after scoring his second goal and Fulham's fifth goal of the match during the Barclays Premier League match between Fulham and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Craven Cottage on March 4, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Fulham's season could very well hinge on whether Clint Dempsey decides to stay or finally bolts for a bigger club.
Martin Jol has a problem, and depending on how that problem is resolved, it will likely play a major role in determining Fulham's success during the upcoming Premier League season. That problem comes in the form of an American attacking midfielder named Clint Dempsey and the uncertainty surrounding his future with the club.
Dempsey led the team with a massive 23 goals in all competitions last year, 17 in the league. The next closest player was Pavel Pogrebnyak with 6 goals...but he's gone to Reading. Well there's always Bobby Zamora's 5 goals...oh wait, they sold him to QPR last year. Ok, well Andy Johnson is still around right? Um, yeah he's at QPR too. See a pattern?
In place of all those strike options, Fulham has signed Hugo Rodallega, a solid forward who's good with both feet and can score in the air as well. No matter what happens with Dempsey, Jol will be looking to Rodallega to carry a heavy load for the Cottagers. Now back to Dempsey. If he leaves to Liverpool or another destination, he'll leave a massive hole in the Fulham lineup, a hole that the likes of Bryan Ruiz or Moussa Dembélé haven't yet proven they are capable of filling. That's assuming of course that the coveted Dembélé isn't swept up by a bigger club as well.
Fulham will still need some more help, but they've been extremely quiet thus far in the transfer market. Other than Rodallega, Jol has only gotten a season-long loan for right-back Sascha Riether and the signing of Mladen Petric, a solid but ageing forward from Germany, on a free transfer. Moves like that are hardly going to make supporters forget the loss of Dickson Etuhu, Johnson, Danny Murphy and Pogrebnyak.
There is experience in the midfield for Fulham with Simon Davies and Damien Duff, so that will help some. More importantly, Fulham should be set defensively with Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes in the back, along with trusty goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, who can usually keep the Cottagers in games. Given the questions surrounding the team's attack, that group could be asked to do a great deal this season.
It appears that Fulham's biggest task will be finding a way to fend off the vultures circling over the club, looking to sign away more of their talented players. If they can manage to keep Dempsey and Dembélé, there's no reason to worry about Fulham not being able to pull off another consistent season that sees them safely avoid the relegation battle.
I don't want to sound completely gloomy about Fulham though. They still have a good squad and Martin Jol is a good manager. Even if they lost Dempsey, there's still enough there to keep Fulham out of the bottom of the table, they just won't be able to crack the Top 10 without him or a comparable replacement signing. The problem is, time is running out in the transfer window and should Dempsey move on, there's little time to spend the money.
Does anybody know if Mohamed Al-Fayed's Michael Jackson statue can score some goals?
Last year: 9th; 14W 10D 14L.
This year: 11th - They could go a little hire if Dempsey sticks around, but there a good enough team to stay above some various bits of flotsam and jetsam floating lower in the table, no matter what Dempsey does.
Key player(s): Hugo Rodallega. If Dempsey sticks around, Rodallega will still need to be a big part of Fulham's offense. If Dempsey leaves, there will be even more pressure of the Colombian to have a big season. Rodallega has the skills and he's going to get the chance to shine this year. The brighter he is able to shine, the better Fulham's chances.