Cardiff - Fulham: Battle of the pantomime clubs

Both sides have been hampered by questionable decision making at boardroom level and know defeat on Saturday would likely consign them to relegation to the Championship
By Jay Jaffa

It is the archetypal six-pointer on Saturday as Cardiff City host Fulham in south Wales and turbulent seasons that have seen managerial sackings and boardroom disarray leave both teams staring down the barrel of Premier League relegation.

Both managers have said their piece in the pre-game build-up; Felix Magath declaring: "They [Cardiff] have to win, so it's a good situation for us," while his counterpart Ole Gunnar Solskjaer challenged his players to "play with courage and no fear."

17. West Brom
18. Sunderland
19. Cardiff
20. Fulham
Neither side will admit it but the loser will, in all likelihood, be relegated to the Championship.

Only a point separates the two teams, Cardiff sitting in 19th ahead of rock bottom Fulham and three points adrift of safety. It is a tight spot and one that makes their two entirely different approaches to survival that much more intriguing.

Cardiff's slide down the table led the club's eccentric owner Vincent Tan to lose faith in Malky Mackay, the man who led the club to promotion last season, and with trouble lurking but far from overbearing Tan pulled the trigger, relieving the Scot of his duties and replacing him with a managerial baby straight out of the Tippeligaen.

It was considered a rash move. Here was the man who guided the Bluebirds to the Premier League, ousted in an uncomfortable and unprofessional manner. Tan consistently undermined the Scot with public declarations that he was not up to the job. It was well known that the Malaysian felt Mackay had wasted a hefty summer transfer budget - Andreas Cornelius’s signing a prime example and an £8 million flop who has already been carted back to Denmark.

But even after Mackay’s tenure, Tan has continued to befuddle onlookers. The fans want their Cardiff back - the blue-shirted emblem of a city with a rich footballing tradition and the Premier League want to know why he offered his squad a £3.7m bonus at this stage of the season - an offer that is illegal under the league’s rules and has since been withdrawn.

In west London it has been just as chaotic. The once-popular Martin Jol ran his course; his legacy is one of inept squad building rather than the tempestuous attacking style he is renowned for. An extraordinary fetish for work-shy flair players was ultimately his undoing as Dimitar Berbatov, Bryan Ruiz and Adel Taarabt very obviously contributed the grand sum of nothing to the worst defence in Europe’s top five leagues.

The appointment of Meulensteen seemed well thought through at the time. It was certainly pre-meditated as Shahid Khan, the club's chairman, positioned him as Jol's assistant manager but there were concerns behind the scenes that the job was too big for a man with little certifiable managerial experience. The quickdraw hire and fire looks shoddy but Khan will maintain it was a case of righting a wrong.

Still, this is a club that have only had 36 managers in its 133-year history and yet we’ve seen three in one campaign. Desperate times, desperate measures.

But in Magath, the Cottagers have sought out a wily old fox. A distinguished operator with a track record of saving relegation-bound clubs. It makes sense on paper.

Khan wrote in the programme notes of Saturday's game against Chelsea: "It wasn't lost on me that introducing a third manager in a season would appear, let's say, unconventional or unpopular - or both."

The surprising reaction to both appointments is that neither manager has enjoyed the traditional honeymoon period - though that could change should the German leave Cardiff with three points.

For Solskjaer though, it is a different story. Cardiff have collected just four points from 24 since the Norwegian made the move from Molde to Wales.

Perhaps the honeymoon spell is delayed. There have been encouraging signs in recent weeks - notably in a resilient if unadventurous performance at Tottenham. Coming off the back of their Europa League exertions, it felt like Spurs were sitting there for the taking - the problem being Cardiff neither had the weapons in their arsenal to do damage, nor a manager who recognised the circumstances. It was a major missed opportunity.

Magath - the first German manager in the Premier League - is renowned for these crash course salvation operations leaving owner Khan to trumpet that "there's no manager better suited to achieve our goal."

There is a real belief that the 60-year-old son of a Puerto Rican soldier can write another chapter in the tale of Fulham's dramatic escapes. The bar was set high by Roy Hodgson's rescue mission in 2007-08 but this would top the lot.

The job has its hurdles, as well as a string of embarrassments (Meulensteen was 'sacked' but still given a chance to remain on the coaching staff) that are so unlike Fulham you wonder if Mohamed Al-Fayed sold the keys to the club or its identity too.

The £12m signing of Kostas Mitroglou promised plenty - at least until Magath and his fitness expert Werner Leuthard took a look at the Greek (and others) and decided there was a glaring lack of match sharpness.

It is incredibly rare that clubs with boardroom instabilities last in the top flight. Al-Fayed's lengthy and stable tenure was a major factor in Fulham's unexpectedly long stay in the Premier League. Sure, they never evolved into the "Manchester United of the south", as the Egyptian promised back in 2001 but they became a constant in the modern day Premier League.

So sad it is then to see all the good work undone in a misguided season frittered away by panic and rash decisions. The same can be said of Tan and Cardiff.

Many Fulham supporters would, at this stage, argue that relegation would enable the club to gut out the deadwood and start afresh. If it's done intelligently, we may see the Cottagers bounce back swiftly. For Cardiff and Tan, the future looks more bleak if relegation is the result of this campaign.

Tan has pledged to stay "unless the fans really p*** me off so much, then I may leave," which, given the volatile nature of the 62-year-old, does not seem out of the realms of possibility.

Until that day comes, we turn our attention to the Cardiff City Stadium. As Solskjaer said after the loss at Spurs: "a draw does nothing for either club." It’s a six-pointer but don’t be surprised if this is the curtain call for 2013-14’s two pantomime clubs.