Fulham face arguably the sternest test of the emerging Championship campaign when Stoke City come to Craven Cottage in a mouthwatering table-topping clash this afternoon. Marco Silva’s side might be sitting top of the table having recovered from a draw with Middlesbrough on the opening weekend by winning their following three fixtures, but Michael O’Neill’s men have an identical record and are beginning to turn a few heads – especially with the manner of their excellent winner against Nottingham Forest last weekend suggesting that the former Northern Ireland boss has successfully tweaked their style to something that’s much more pleasing on the eye.
O’Neill believes Fulham will represent ‘a good yardstick’ of how his side are progressing after an encouraging August. The visitors will benefit from being roared on by a sold-out away allocation and Stoke fans have every reason to be excited given the way their side has started the new season. They will be without the services of former Manchester United midfielder Nick Powell, who will be sidelined until after the international break having picked up an injury during City’s win at Swansea City earlier this month. Although striker Tyrese Campbell, a scorer at Fulham’s last visit to Stoke, and Tashan Oakley-Boothe have both resumed training after injury, the trip to the capital will come too soon for them to feature.
Stoke’s strong start has shown that they have all the attributes of a strong side at Championship level. They have been miserly in defence, usually playing three centre backs. Harry Souttar’s aerial ability makes him dangerous in both boxes, Ben Wilmot has the potential to be one of the signings of the summer after joining from Watford in June having helped the Hornets return to the Premier League and Leo Ostigard, outstanding for Coventry last season, was a shrewd acquisition on loan from Brighton. The trio have gelled effectively to add a sturdiness to a Stoke defence that had been a little leaky in previous seasons.
Saturday’s defeat of Forest also demonstrated why O’Neill has been so keen to play with wing-backs. Tom Smith has quietly had a storming start down the right flank whilst Josh Tymon’s first senior goal highlighted the potential that has been whispered about for a long while. Stoke have plenty of options in the centre of the park. Sam Clucas is a proven performer at this level and Joe Allen’s ability, after his consistent displays over many years for Swansea and Liverpool, is also without question. Mario Vrancic, a crucial part of Norwich’s Championship-winning side with ten goals and seven assists in 2019, is an excellent passer with serious set piece credentials.
The experienced Steven Fletcher will pose problems for any defence with his physicality and goalpoaching abilities, but the emergence of Jacob Brown has been a real bonus for Stoke so far this season. He can lead the sort of press that O’Neill looks to put on the opposition effortlessly and has the happy knack of making a real nuisance of himself. That pairing should start against Fulham and test whether the Whites are as defensively sound as they have looked in their first few outings under new management.
Silva’s selection will be particularly interesting as Fulham – barring the enforced absence of Kenny Tete – are creeping closer to getting back to full strength. Tim Ream seems to have recovered from what had initially looked like a horrendous back injury against Hull City last weekend and should slot in again alongside Tosin Adarabioyo at the heart of the defence. Antonee Robinson followed up his first assist against the Tigers with a first goal for the club at Birmingham in the League Cup victory in midweek and so should keep hold of the left back berth. Silva suggested that Fulham might be venturing into the transfer market to find a replacement for the injured Tete and I would imagine that playing Bobby Decordova-Reid at right back might be too adventurous a solution against one of the division’s form sides.
It will be intriguing to see how Silva’s midfield shapes up. Harrison Reed seems set to be available for the first time this season after having finally proven his fitness following an ankle injury. There’s no doubt that Fulham have looked a better side with him sitting in front of the back four ever since he joined from Southampton, but whether he will be considered sharp enough to displace either Josh Onomah or Jean Michael Seri, who have struck up an excellent rapport in the engine room, remains to be seen. Fabio Carvalho’s availability is a huge boost. The teenager has quickly become an integral part of the Fulham side, with his energy and eye for goal, enlivening a team that looked rather pedestrian for much of last season. His burgeoning understanding with Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose new contract has given everyone a real lift, has been one of the most encouraging aspects of Marco Silva’s reign so far.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Seri; Decordova-Reid, Kebano, Carvalho; Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Mawson, Francois, Anguissa, Onomah, Cavaleiro, Stansfield.