Unbeaten in the league – with three impressive wins in a week – and sitting joint top of the Championship, Marco Silva has plenty of reasons to be very pleased with his first six weeks in charge at Fulham. The Portuguese head coach’s professionalism and pursuit of high standards meant he professed dismay at not fully putting Hull City to the sword on Saturday, but it is clear that elements of his adventurous approach have percolated through to the first team squad. As starts go, this is Fulham’s best since 2000/2001 – which is not a bad yardstick to measure against when you are trying to win promotion to the Premier League.
The challenge at Birmingham tonight is somewhat different. Cup runs, as rare as Fulham’s are, are lovely things to have but a return to the top flight is most definitely the club’s overarching ambition. That means, as Silva has already signalled, that there will be significant rotation of resources at St. Andrew’s. It will offer an opportunity for some of those on the periphery so far this season – and given the way injuries dramatically forced a rejig within the first half an hour at the weekend – they could be playing for a place in Silva’s first team plans.
The tussle with Lee Bowyer’s charges takes on added significance for someone like Alfie Mawson, who would initially been viewing this as a chance to show a new head coach how he could fit the emerging Silva system. Should he get the nod tonight, it will be an opening to build on his impressive return against Hull and get more minutes under his belt at a time where there is still suspicion about his injury record. Whoever is selected at right back will come under some scrutiny after Kenny Tete’s hamstring strain on Saturday. Fulham are well catered for in this position – but it will be intriguing to see which one of Cyrus Christie, coveted of late by Nottingham Forest, utility man Denis Odoi or Steven Sessegnon, who hasn’t had the opportunities his talent merits, lines up there.
The rest of the side will likely be a bit mix-and-match with half an eye on Saturday’s showdown with Stoke City, another of the early pacesetters, at Craven Cottage. There should be another outing for Tyrese Francois, who enjoyed an encouraging league debut against Middlesbrough on the opening weekend before being usurped by Jean-Michael Seri’s stunning return, and you wonder if a couple of the youngsters who have shone during the under 23’s excellent start to the new campaign. Sonny Hilton has shown a real eye for goal and Silva included Terry Ablade in a couple of the squads for the summer friendlies.
The most likely candidate for a start is Jay Stansfield, the promising young striker who has been training with the first team and has featured on the bench in the last couple of games. With Rodrigo Muniz heading to London today ahead of joining up with his new team-mates, this would be an ideal opportunity for Stansfield, so devastating for Fulham’s youth teams in his first season after moving from Exeter before injury cruelly strike, to demonstrate his talents. He had a couple of impressive cameos under Scott Parker and certainly won’t be overawed by the challenge.
Birmingham have made an impressive start to the new campaign, with the canny Bowyer proving an astute managerial appointment – who has offered some temporary relief from the other chaos engulfing the football club at the moment. Blues have played bright and disciplined football, with their only defeat coming against a Bournemouth side that they largely dominated. Changes will be the order of the day for Bowyer as well – and it remains to be seen whether former Fulham goalkeeper Neil Etheridge will be fit to make a first-team return this evening.
Chuks Aneke could be handed a start after scoring his first Birmingham goal in the impressive dismantling of Luton on Saturday, having followed his manager from Charlton in the summer, and seasoned Championship campaigners George Friend and Gary Gardner might feature too. Manchester United loanee Tahith Chong has oozed class on the wing and Fulham will need to watch the Dutch wide man carefully if he isn’t given a night off.
With the league a priority for both sides, there might be a little levelling off in terms of intensity at times tonight – but this is a crucial fixture for many of the players likely to be involved. The gruelling Championship season tests even the most stacked of squads and, as we have seen already in the past few days, an injury crisis can strike at any time. A good performance this evening might make the difference between heading for the exit in the final hours of the transfer window and playing a key part in a promotion push. Silva, who will already know to be a demanding coach, will be watching carefully.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Sessegnon, Bryan, Mawson, Odoi; Francois, Anguissa; Decordova-Reid, Hilton, Kebano; Stansfield. Subs: L. Ashby-Hammond, Christie, Hector, Onomah, Ablade, Carvalho, Cavaleiro.