After the disappointment of what still seems a rather tame exit from the FA Cup at the hands of a subdued Southampton last weekend, Fulham return to league action with what appears a pivotal clash with Middlesbrough this afternoon. After the Sheffield derby stalemate at Bramall Lane last night, Slavisa Jokanovic’s side are just four points off the top six with a game in hand and could leapfrog today’s hosts with a win at the Riverside Stadium. Both Aboubakar Kamara and Lucas Piazon have talked up this contest as ‘massive’ and, for once, this isn’t the hyperbole that so often infects modern football.
It will be far from easy for Fulham on Teesside, however. Tony Pulis, whom the Craven Cottage faithful have rightly refused to forgive following his disgraceful remarks in the aftermath of the death of Matthew Fox at Gillingham, has his sights set on an immediate return to the top flight and you can already see the imprints of the former Stoke City and West Brom manager on his new charges. His impact was illustrated by the manner in which Boro came from behind to secure a vital win at Preston North End on New Year’s Day and Pulis wasn’t about to waste that precious momentum. He took the FA Cup seriously last weekend – unlike so many other managers – and a motivated side took Sunderland apart. It isn’t difficult to believe Danny Higginbotham went he describes his old manager’s ability to make his players ‘feel 10ft tall’ and Fulham will have to be prepared for a thorough examination of their own promotion credentials, which may well be robust and physical, today.
Middlesbrough sit a couple of places and points above Fulham in the Championship table and that was one of the reasons they made the decision to ditch Garry Monk and move for Pulis, who has a proven track record of securing promotion in domestic football. The Welshman has been candid enough to admit his still assessing much of the squad that he has inherited on Teesside, although Pulis has indicated a desire to trim his player resources by the end of the month. That could mean moves for the likes of Adam Clayton, Fabio, Patrick Bamford or Ashley Fletcher over the course of the window – but Pulis is still left with a very strong first team squad at his disposal.
Boro have won four of their last five and head into this afternoon’s fixture full of confidence. They certainly possess plenty of pace and power up front – the presence of Britt Assombalonga is one of the reasons why Pulis might be prepared to let such a glut of attacking talent leave the Riverside during January. The Congolese striker, who pushed Felix Magath to the brink with a devastating hat-trick at the City Ground back in 2014, seems to have overcome the injuries that had disrupted his career after such a bright introduction to life in the Championship and already has twelve goals to his name this season. With service likely to be provided by the experienced Stewart Downing and Adama Traore, one of the brightest talents in the division, you can expect that former Middlesbrough defender Tomas Kalas and Tim Ream will be kept busy this afternoon.
The midfield battle might well be where the game can be won – and Fulham could well be without the services of skipper Tom Cairney, who showed signs of experiencing more trouble in his knee after requiring treatment in the warm-up before Fulham’s first win of the new year against Ipswich. Pulis could well pair the formidable Adlene Guedioura with creative hub Jonny Howson in front of the defensive shield Grant Leadbitter as a talented midfield trio, who will look to get a grip of the contest early on. If Cairney does miss out later today, it is vitally important that Ollie Norwood rediscovers the form of earlier in the campaign – rather than the iffy passing that blighted his last outing in the Cup against Southampton.
Fulham’s record at the Riverside is far from encouraging. The Whites have never won at Middlesbrough’s not-so-new home, with Boro enjoying an unbeaten run of thirteen home fixtures. You have to go back to the final day of the 2006-2007 season, when Lawrie Sanchez’s side had already secured safety following Clint Dempsey’s winner over Liverpool a week earlier, and a Simon Davies strike in a 3-1 defeat for Fulham’s last goal at Middlesbrough. The Whites haven’t won on Teesside since a 2-0 win in March 1984 – with the high points since then being when Jean Tigana’s side scored two stoppage-time goals through Sean Davis and Facundo Savage to salvage a point from 2-0 in 2002 and a painstaking point achieved by Kit Symons’ side in 2015.
Jokanovic has already indicated that he will give Cairney the best possible chance of proving his fitness before deciding on his starting line-up but he does have dilemmas elsewhere in the line-up. Marcus Bettinelli has returned to training following the hefty blow he took in conceding Ipswich’s opener ten days ago and could replace David Button in goal, whilst Kevin McDonald should continue at the base of the midfield having missed some training following the FA Cup exit. Jokanovic’s big call will be whether to entrust the in-form Kamara with the responsibility of leading the line at Riverside – although with four goals in his last 135 minutes of league action, that should be something of a no-brainer for the Serbian, surely?
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Odoi, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood, Johansen; Ojo, R. Sessegnon, Kamara. Subs: Button, S. Sessegnon, Djalo, de la Torre, Kebano, Piazon, Fonte.