René Meulensteen sees Saturday’s clash with Sunderland in the Barclays Premier League as an ideal opportunity for Fulham to put some distance between themselves and the bottom three.
The Whites could potentially move five points clear of the relegation zone with victory over Gus Poyet’s side, and when asked if he views it as a good chance to create some daylight, Meulensteen stated: “Absolutely, that’s why it’s hugely important. West Ham United was hugely important, which we came out of really, really well with a great result and a good performance, and Sunderland is likewise.
“It’s a huge game for us – we know this – it’s a huge game for them, too, but the trend has been positive. We’ve been working well, we’ve been working hard, the quality has been there and it’s starting to pay off and hopefully that will be the same against Sunderland.
“I think Gus has picked up the challenge, like I have, and he’s got a clear idea of how he wants his team to play football. So he puts that element into the team and into the players clearly for everybody to see.
“And it’s an interesting fact how well they’ve done in different competitions against really big teams. There’s a bit of steel about Sunderland and they’re definitely one of the opponents we won’t underestimate.”
The Craven Cottage encounter could see Fulham record a first league double of the season following on from the opening day victory on Wearside, and Meulensteen admitted he hopes the home following works to his side’s benefit.
“It’s good for us that it’s played at home because it gives you that slight advantage in front of your own fans,” he said. “Hopefully that will help us in getting the win. I think the fans have been magnificent for us, I couldn’t ask for anything more. I think they’ve contributed tremendously in helping us to turn things around. Don’t believe for one minute that we’ve turned it around completely, though. We’re still in that process, and the fans realise how important a role they’ve got to play.”
A major boost for the Whites going into Saturday’s game is the return of Club Captain Brede Hangeland. The long-serving defender has been out following surgery on his right leg, but is in contention to feature against the Black Cats in some capacity.
“Brede’s come in to full training with us so he’s up for selection in that respect,” Meulensteen confirmed. “He’s done really, really well and is progressing nicely.
“We haven’t made our mind up completely [if he’ll start] but I’m very happy he’s up there for selection. When people come back from a long injury, the last thing you want is to come back and then go again. We want him to come and stay, so we’re very cautious with him.
“The other injury updates are that Maarten Stekelenburg is going to be some sort of a late shout. It will be difficult but it’s a late shout because of his ankle. He’s trained, he’s progressed well, he’s responding to treatment. Other than that, Kieran Richardson is back in full training after a little hamstring tightness.”
In the eight games played since Meulensteen took the reins at Fulham, performances have been a joy to watch – our trip to the KC Stadium aside – but the Dutchman insisted the hard work is far from over.
“It’s a process that you start and it’s a process that’s never-ending because there’s always different challenges ahead of you, no matter where you are in the league,” he explained. “There’s always another game to win, another opponent to overcome, but the challenge of getting better never stops. The moment you’re resigned to that, you go downhill, and I won’t let that happen.
“I think you have to make sure that everybody’s aware of what we’re all into and what we’re all trying to achieve and, in general, we all try to achieve the best football we can. We’re always making sure, together with the players, that we’re process-driven, rather than just result-orientated, because that’s very, very dangerous.
“If you get the players to buy into that process and you get them to grow with you to play better football and put in better performances, then hopefully automatically the results will come, and that’s what we focus on.”
In Friday’s press conference, Meulensteen was also questioned on the future of Bryan Ruiz. The Costa Rica skipper has been out of favour in recent weeks, and the Head Coach confirmed that he could be on his way out of Craven Cottage.
“We’ve allowed Bryan Ruiz to talk to a number of clubs to see if anything can come out of that,” he stated. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a very good player. I’ve come in, I’ve looked at the squad, I’ve worked with these players.