That scoreless draw up at the Riverside Stadium seems a lot longer ago than October. It was a strange sort of game – utterly disrupted by the early sending off of Marek Rodak, now firmly established as Scott Parker’s number one, where Fulham might have felt a little aggrieved not to have grabbed all three points despite their numerical disadvantage. Middlesbrough, who badly lacked both penetration and creativity as the natives appeared restless with Jonathan Woodgate, looked set for a long season at the wrong end of the table.
Boro, though, are booming now. One thing Steve Gibson gives his managers is plenty of time, unlike most owners in the modern game. Woodgate was reassured by his chairman’s regular encouragement, even after winning just two of his first seventeen matches in charge, and gradually things began to click. Confidence surged after a key victory at Barnsley and another impressive success at Charlton sparked a run of four straight wins over the festive period that saw a manager under pressure suddenly clutching the Championship manager of the month award.
Woodgate has placed plenty of faith in youngsters, befitting the club’s history of bringing through talent from one of the country’s most successful academy set-ups. Young Aynsley Pears, whose only first team experience prior to Darren Randolph getting injured in October came in non-league football, has been a revelation in goal. Djed Spence, who came through the Fulham academy before moving on last summer, has shone since being introduced at right back and he could well have another former Fulham youngster playing in front of him at Craven Cottage tonight after Patrick Roberts joined on loan from Manchester City. Early signs of the link-up between the two have been encouraging.
Middlesbrough’s impressive revival has gone under the radar somewhat given how congested the top half of the Championship is at present. Remarkably, since a 4-0 hammering at Leeds in November, they have taken 17 points from a possible 24 – the best in the division. Only a late, late Derby equaliser prevented them from making it five wins in a row last weekend – and Woodgate’s men head to London with the momentum, so crucial in this crazy league, right behind them.
There’s no doubt Boro have plenty of quality. Dael Fry remains one of the most underrated centre halves in the league and young Nathan Wood, even at the tender age of 17, has the hallmarks of a player who could go all the way. The teenager is in line for a start, especially with Middlesbrough struggling for fit centre halves at the moment. The likes of Hayden Coulson, Marcus Tavernier, George Saville and Roberts – who were all rested for the FA Cup replay at Spurs in midweek – should come back into the side. The visitors might still be without star striker Britt Assombalonga, who has a history of troubling Fulham, but Woodgate can now call on the fit-again Rudy Gestede and Lucas Nmecha. There’s also the in-form Ashley Fletcher, who has found the net in both of his last two away league games.
Fulham have been particularly flaky this season. Just when a humbling defeat at the hands of Reading on New Year’s Day appeared to leave the automatic promotion positions out of reach, a gritty win at Hull left the tantalising prospect of catching the top two, who surrendered points at the same time, back on the table. That victory on Humberside was built on a clean sheet – with Michael Hector enjoying an promising league debut – and a doggedness rarely seen under Parker this season, with the manager leaving the likes of Tom Cairney and Harry Arter on the bench as the Whites produced the perfect away performance.
The big question will be how Parker decides to deal with the untimely absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic, who will be sidelined for at least three weeks after injuring his ankle ligaments in the second half at Hull. The absence of their talisman, who has scored 18 goals in 26 games, could be devastating as the Whites look to mount a promotion push – especially as Aboubakar Kamara, who deputised for the Serbian so ably against QPR earlier in the campaign, is also nursing an ankle problem. Parker will probably ask Bobby Decordova-Reid to fill a more advanced role, although Ivan Cavaleiro – who celebrated his permanent move to Craven Cottage with a stunning winner at Hull last weekend – operated as a false nine in the FA Cup win over Aston Villa. The romantic choice would be continuing Jay Stansfield’s exceptional start to his Fulham career, although the 17 year-old is more likely to start on the bench.
Parker still has questions to ponder over the make up of the rest of his side. Denis Odoi did well to shackle Jarrod Bowen at the KCOM and could continue at left back, especially with a host of clubs apparently pursuing an interest in Joe Bryan, whilst Terence Kongolo’s loan move from Huddersfield has probably come too late for him to slot straight into the back four this evening. The midfield might be missing Harrison Reid’s bite, but Kevin McDonald shored things up impressively at Hull after an iffy start and his experience could be vital on a night when Fulham may need to be both patient and streetwise against tricky opponents.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Odoi, Hector, Ream; McDonald, Onomah, Cairney; Knockaert, Cavaleiro, Decordova-Reid. Subs: Norman, S. Sessegnon, Mawson, Arter, Johansen, Kebano, Stansfield.