Fulham welcome Chris Hughton’s Brighton and Hove Albion to Craven Cottage tomorrow night in what is now unmistakably a must-win game.
Despite the desolation of the last-gasp defeat to Tottenham, there would have been plenty of positives for Claudio Ranieri to take from a battling performance. The Whites created a number of good chances in the first half and certainly should have been in front by more than a single goal at the break. Eyebrows were raised when Fulham brought in Ryan Babel, a 32 year-old winger with shocking red hair, during the transfer window but, on the basis of his powerful display against Spurs, it was clear that the former Liverpool winger offers something different. Babel showed determination, fight, an ability to link up with Aleksandar Mitrovic, and all that was missing was a deserved debut goal.
Results certainly haven’t gone for Ranieri since the new year. Now’s the time for Fulham to be brave, play with some spirit and treat our remaining games like Cup finals. Draws at home won’t be good enough any more – especially when you look at the fixtures that our relegation rivals have in the weeks ahead. Brighton are brilliantly drilled by Hughton and their continued survival in the top flight is a story in itself. Albion will be tough to breakdown but pose a real threat on the break as well as set pieces, with their tall centre halves Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy likely to cause problems. There is also the ex-Fulham contingent with David Button, who has been deputising for Matty Ryan in recent weeks, recently joined by Dan Burn.
Ranieri’s team selections have been baffling for a while. I hope that he can reintroduce Ryan Sessegnon, who seems to have been treated a little shabbily in the past few weeks, especially with some of the criticism that has come the teenager’s way. Sessegnon is a prodigious talent who is still learning his way at the highest level, but his quality has been evident in the way he scored a vital goal against Wolves and then set up that last-gasp winner for Mitrovic against Huddersfield. I feel he offers far more than Andre Schurrle at the moment – and the pace of him and Ryan Babel could make Fulham’s front three a bit more formidable.
If Ranieri was being bold, he could also sacrifice a centre back to play both Jean-Michael Seri and Tom Cairney in front of Calum Chambers. The five at the back might have helped stabilise things defensively for a while, but it seems as though teams have been able to figure out the gameplan. Fulham need to score goals and take the game to the opposition, particularly at home. We have only scored more than goal under Ranieri once – and that was against Southampton, back in his first game in charge. The combination of Seri and Cairney have the guile to unlock even the tightest of defences and, if Sessegnon and Babel are raiding down the flanks, then Seri will have the runners that his passing game thrives upon.
The margin for error is now very slender: if we don’t pick up three points against Brighton tomorrow night, I fear the fat lady might be clearing her throat.
My match prediction: Fulham 2-1 Brighton!