As I made my way to Craven Cottage for a second successive Saturday it promised to be the toughest test yet for Fulham’s promotion credentials. Stoke, who under Michael O’Neill have been playing far more attractive football than their historical reputation would suggest, were sitting in third prior to kick off and shaped up as one of the toughest opponents in Marco Silva’s brief tenure in charge.
My pre match preparation involved an extensive Dim sum luncheon in China town with the in laws and a commute to the ground accompanied by my girlfriend’s Chelsea-supporting brother. As he had never visited the ‘home of football” I felt it was vital to travel via Putney Bridge and give him the full match day experience and the hospitality that only Bishop’s Park can provide. This as many of you will know goes hand in hand with swarms of away fans and Stoke were certainly out in force. Many though had made the classic mistake of disembarking at Fulham Broadway and, after they had joyfully mocked the Fulham fans for “shopping at Wholefoods,” nobody saw it necessary to tell them differently! .The joke of course was not lost on my Chelsea-supporting companion either. On the walk in I observed no less than three “Muniz” shirts with fans desperately anticipating our first new forward in what feels like a lifetime.
The District line being as reliably slow as ever and the fact I had one too many dumplings at Dim Sum meant it was only a 20 minute gap between turnstile and kick-off left time for only a single pre-match Carlsberg. Clearly the away fans had rectified their tube station blunder as their end looked full unlike last week, while the Hammersmith End was in great voice. All seats now appear to be in place in the Riverside stand having clearly been filled in throughout the week. Our line up was fairly consistent with Odoi deputising at right back and Wilson coming back in on the right with Bobby Decordova-Reid starting wide left.
Any pre-game dissipated after only five minutes when Harry Wilson finished off a beautiful flowing team move to drive home following a clever Mitrovic lay-off. Despite what was in truth a rather routine win, it has to be said that Bursik in the Stoke goal was incredibly good. Without his efforts the score would easily have been even more comfortable. At the other end, Stoke showed signs of the quality that had seen them start the season so well although much of this culminated in peppering our box with crosses. Despite my reservations around Gazzaniga as our first choice keeper, this was far and away his best so far in a Fulham shirt. His handling with the exception of one missed cross in the 2nd half was faultless alongside a few decent saves to provide assurance on the odd occasions when Stoke did threaten our goal. With Kenny Tete seemingly being out for a while it was also nice to see Odoi put in a solid performance at right back and still to this day he amazes me at how a man of his stature wins balls in the air.
Even with the early goal we went in at the break only one better than our visitors having missed a host of chances. Carvalho seemed quiet by his standards and really should have passed to Mitrovic on a breakaway instead of shooting and Onomah despite being productive was guilty of some fairly loose passing. Competition for the three central midfield berths is high and, while Seri seems like a new signing given his form and renewed interest in actually wanting to be here, one of the biggest cheers came at the sight of seeing Harrison Reed warming up for the first time this season.
Many of our wasted chances in the final ten minutes of the half had been missed by the hoards hurrying for half time refreshments – and this exodus is taking place earlier and earlier every week. John Mitchell received a well deserved welcome from the Hammersmith in his half time appearance while my Chelsea supporting guest expressed his bemusement as to why we only got updates of Championship scores and not the Premier League as well. I informed him this was a privilege we as a club needed to earn again before we finally managed to get enough signal to check them ourselves and have a good laugh at Arsenal’s expense.
It was fairly clear that O’Neill had told his team to get stuck in for the second half and tackles flew in as frustrations grew. Fulham seem to have the knack of scoring at the right time and the second came barely ten minutes into the second half with some good work from Mitrovic resulting in a rebound falling to Decordova-Reid, who slotted home from close range. Much like the majority of the first half every Fulham attack was accompanied by the posh kid behind me gleefully telling his mate that he expected Fulham to “put it in the top bins” each time a shot was registered. Needless to say this grew old incredibly quickly but i resisted the urge to say anything.
Harry Wilson was inches away from bagging his second and Fulham’s third hitting the post before minutes later bravely sacrificing himself to lay on the third for Mitrovic. The biggest takeaway from the second half outside of the fact that we really are very good (despite still not being able to take penalties) was just how big Stoke centre back Harry Souttar is. He dwarfed Mitrovic although luckily in a game that was won on the floor rather than in the air. Reed managed a brief run out to a rapturous reception that was quickly followed by a moment of action after a hefty challenge on his previously injured ankle left him in a heap. Reed was fit to carry on, but with all three substitutions made, we didn’t get to see Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa do anything other than amble along the touchline. I suspect it may be the last time we see him in a Fulham squad.
Oddly enough, Fulham finished with 51% possession in a game that was so much more comfortable than anticipated. Maintaining our place at the top of the league going in to the International break caps off an excellent first few weeks under Silva’s tenure with the only real negative being the rumours swirling around AEW potentially coming to Craven Cottage in the future, but we can’t hold Marco accountable for that. Here’s hoping Harry Souttar is the closest thing we see to a wrestler on the pitch in the near future as we look forward to a trip to see the lights in our next outing away in Blackpool.