x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Hughes refuses to be drawn into pessimism despite failure to win

Fulham are held to a 1-1 draw against Birmingham City at Craven Cottage.

Clint Dempsey, No 23, jumps over Barry Ferguson, the Birmingham City midfielder, to score Fulham’s equaliser at Craven Cottage yesterday as the sides shared the spoils.
Clint Dempsey, No 23, jumps over Barry Ferguson, the Birmingham City midfielder, to score Fulham’s equaliser at Craven Cottage yesterday as the sides shared the spoils.

LONDON // It is three weeks short of a year since Mark Hughes was sacked by Manchester City. The Welsh manager received plenty of sympathy for what was widely perceived as a hasty dismissal by a new regime.

Now the perception of Hughes being one of English football's most well-rounded and astute "young" managers is coming under the microscope. Certainly his CV no longer looks quite so convincing.

Last season, Fulham enjoyed one of the best campaigns in the club's history, finishing a solid 12th in the league and reaching the final of the Europa League under Roy Hodgson.

They now stand just three points above the relegation zone after both West Ham United and Wolverhampton Wanderers won yesterday. If they are not careful, Fulham will get sucked into what is promising to become one of the most complicated relegation battles the Premier League has seen.

"We are well aware of where we are in the table right now. But I am not worried because I believe we have the quality to pull clear," Hughes said. "And if you look at it another way we are just five points off seventh place."

That eight-point spread emphasises just how tight the table is. But despite Hughes's glass-half-full philosophy, Fulham are starting to look more vulnerable than most imagined at the start of the season.

Not that they are a particularly poor side or are short of spirit; they are just drawing too many games. That was a disease that effectively cost Hughes his job at City, when an early season run of seven consecutive draws undermined their chances of challenging for the title. And this was Fulham's ninth draw in 15 games.

It is not that Hughes is playing cautiously; Fulham are just too lightweight up front. That has a lot to do with the long-term absence of the injured Bobby Zamora, out until February at least.

That Zamora was sidelined in September meant Hughes could not do anything in the transfer market to fill the void, but with Andrew Johnson left on the bench yesterday after his long-awaited return from injury, the Fulham manager could be blamed for not being proactive enough against Birmingham City yesterday.

Far too often Fulham's attacks broke down in the final third because they could not hold the ball well enough. When they did create openings their finishing was just not sharp enough.

Hughes introduced Johnson with only 17 minutes to go, barely enough time to make an impression.

In some ways the same criticism could be levelled at Birmingham, whose failure to win away from home - they have not since March - might yet count against them.

When Alexander Hleb limped off with a hamstring injury they could no longer knit the ball from back to front. It was Hleb who set up Birmingham's opener in the 20th minute when he made a dazzling run from the halfway line before rolling the ball into the path of the industrious Sebastian Larsson to tuck home a low shot.

Fulham's equaliser was scrappy, Clint Dempsey forcing the ball home in the 53rd minute from close range as Birmingham failed to clear a corner.

But it was Birmingham who came closest to a winner with Roger Johnson seeing a late effort hit the bar.

Alex McLeish, the Birmingham manager, is not concerned about the lack of away victories.

"I couldn't care less," he said. "If we can keeping winning at home and take four points out of six every two games, I think we will be OK."

 

sports@thenational.ae