These two clubs play each other in the opener on Saturday, so this will be a season/match preview. These two clubs and Blackburn were promoted to the Premier League in 2001. They are the only group from the last 20 years to see all three members stay up. And ten years later, none have been relegated, and all have qualified for Europe on multiple occasions. They have also all gone through several management shifts and some big-time relegation scares. But they are still here.
Mark Hughes has just taken over at Craven Cottage, and most think he is the right man for the job. I agree. He is a good manager, and not only will he stabilize a club that was in danger of regressing after Roy Hodgson left, he will also push them forward, possibly even into the top half of the table. He does have some issues to deal though.
At the moment, the defense, a real strength for them last season, seems to be falling apart. Two particular pieces of rather bad news have come out int he past few days. Phillippe Senderos, whom the cottagers were hoping would be an upgrade over Aaron Hughes and an excellent partner for stalwart Brede Hangeland, has snapped his achilles on international duty for Switzerland, and he will be sidelined for at least six months. This hurts, but not as much as the latest statement from goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. The big Australian was very good last season, and without him they could have slipped further down the table. He has been linked to Arsenal for most of the summer, and now he has come out and said he wants to go. Trouble is, Fulham have absolutely nothing behind him. This is a squad with a solid and deep attacking midfield, a good variety of forwards, and some hard tacklers in the middle of the park. They have to sort the situation in goal out quickly though.
As for Bolton, Owen Coyle has stabilized the club just in time for their tenth season in the top flight. Whereas Fulham will be looking to push back into the top ten this season, I think the Wamderers will be trying to consolidate their position, a move further up the table will be the goal next season.
Bolton's strength is in the midfield. Lee Chung-yong and Martin Petrov are both pacey and skillful, and they will be counted on to keep Fulham on the back foot. There is an abundance of power and technique in the middle, with young destroyer Fabrice Muamba winning ball after ball with his, uh, uncompromising style. As soon as he wins it, he passes it off to silky smooth Stuart Holden, who will use his pace and passing ability to bring it forward and allow the wingers to get ahead of play and put in quality crosses for big Kevin Davies to win in the air.
Fulham have their own hard man in the midfield, Dickson Etuhu, partnered by skillful (but aging) Danny Murphy. The match up in the middle, Etuhu and Murphy versus Muamba and Holden, could determine who takes the points on Saturday. I think it will be a fast paced, end to end affair, with a lot of chances created on both sides. Whoever displays better finishing will take the three points. I think Bolton may win the battle on Saturday, but Fulham will win the war, by finishing one spot ahead of Wanderers in the league table come May.