Kit Symons’ quiet rejuvenation of what was a horribly dishevelled Fulham side faces its sternest test this afternoon with a festive trip to the Championship pace setters Bournemouth. The Cherries have been in quite scintillating form, surprising almost everybody with their free-scoring, attractive football to sit atop of the table ahead of many of the more fancied names in the division and in with an excellent chance of promotion to the Premier League as the season moves past its halfway point.
Much of the credit has to go a visionary young manager in Eddie Howe, now in his second spell at a club that he helped to lift from 91st in the English professional pyramid having been promoted from running the club’s youth set-up at the age of 31 some six years ago. Howe’s stock has risen remarkably within the game since his successful battle against the drop into the Conference, but his work ethic and diligence remains undimmed and the footballing philosophy with which he has imbued this club is unchanged. His sides play expansive football, as evidence by their remarkable scoring record this term, without being overly cavalier.
Howe’s side is packed full of hungry, talented footballers who are beginning to shine by fulfilling the disciplined and detailed roles that their manager has ascribed them. Goals come from right across the side, although striker Callum Wilson has taken the form that sparked Coventry’s strong start to the last couple of campaigns into the Championship with ten goals for the Cherries and those predatory instincts have meant that Bournemouth haven’t rued the summer departure of Lewis Grabban for Carrow Road as much as they might have. Howe will also be keen to ward off reported interest from a number of sides – including today’s visitors – in winger Matt Ritchie, who has been one of the league’s most creative players, with ten assists to his name alongside a real eye for goal of his own.
There is experience amongst the Cherries squad too. The evergreen Ian Harte, who counts those exhilarating seasons under David O’Leary at Leeds as well as a spell in Spain and, more recently Championship football at Reading, among his memories, could return to left back this afternoon. Harry Arter, who has made pre-match headlines for being the brother-in-law of Fulham’s captain Scott Parker, has more recent knowledge of the more prosaic end of the football ladder, having dropped out of the league at Woking, but his return to the professional game with Bournemouth saw him become an important part of their recent raise. Whilst Arter made a festive visit to Parker’s home yesterday, family ties will be set aside this afternoon.
Plotting a way past a side in sparkling form will be a real test for Symons, whose side have responded remarkably well since the Friday night thrashing at home to Watford a fortnight ago. The Fulham manager described the 5-0 defeat as his worst moment in management, but refused to dwell on the magnitude of the loss with the players, preferring to move onto preparations for the visit to Leeds. That approach served his side well and two successive clean sheets have – temporarily at least – stemmed the bleeding at the heart of the division’s most porous defence, which serves as a remainder of the disastrous start to the season under Felix Magath.
Symons’ pragmatic approach to management, marrying the experience of players exiled by his predecessor with the prodigious talents that have come through the club’s lauded academy, has seen Fulham slowly claw themselves away from the relegation zone to the relative obscurity of mid-table. The eye-catching performances of Lasse Vigen Christensen, who has scored five goals and made five more since stepping seamlessly into the first-team midfield, continued with the manner of his composed display on Saturday against Sheffield Wednesday, which he capped with a superb solo goal; a week after he made the winner in Yorkshire for top scorer Hugo Rodallega.
Fulham have an extra day following this contest to prepare for their next festive fixture, against managerless Brighton on Monday night, and that might well see Symons stick to the settled side that has delivered the recent up turn in form. That would mean Shaun Hutchinson, who scored his first goal for the club since a summer move from Scotland at the weekend, keeping out Dan Burn at the heart of the defence after a shaky start to his Fulham career. The promise of Christensen and on-loan teenager Seiko Fofana will be tested in a fierce midfield battle this afternoon, whilst Ross McCormack’s burgeoning partnership with Rodallega could well be the main source of a crucial goal.
MY FULHAM XI (4-1-2-1-2): Bettinelli; Grimmer, Stafylidis, Bodurov, Hutchinson; Parker; Christensen, Fofana; Ruiz, McCormack, Rodallega. Subs: Kiraly, Burn, Hyndman, G. Williams, Roberts, Woodrow, Dembele.