Perhaps the silver lining from Saturday’s tame capitulation at Blackpool is that should put a stop to the smug idea that Marco Silva’s side might walk the Championship. Fulham’s awesome August was all well and good, but nothing is won in the first four weeks of the campaign. Responding to adversity is how all the best teams display their credentials and the Whites face an early test of their stomach for the fight at St. Andrew’s tomorrow night.
Lee Bowyer has done a magnificent job in fashioning a feisty outfit from a meagre outlay over the summer and navigating the choppy waters of Birmingham’s messy off-field affairs. Plenty of pundits were surprised when Bowyer swapped Charlton Athletic for another of his former sides last March, but far from resting on his laurels after keeping the Blues up, he has taken his charges to just outside the top six having won three of their first six games.
Bowyer has spoken of how pleased he is that the team he manages can demonstrate the battling qualities that typified his own playing career and believes a proposed new strike pairing of Lukas Jutkiewicz and Troy Deeney would ‘beat up’ plenty of defences. The way in which Fulham succumbed at Bloomfield Road on Saturday might indicate that Silva’s side could have something of a soft underbelly: they were distinctly below par from the outside, susceptible to Neil Critchley’s high press and the Whites were never able to put together the kind of high octane and inventive display that had characterised their start to the Championship. After the final whistle on Saturday, you could just imagine Bowyer licking his lips in anticipation. He has the experience of nullifying Fulham twice in the Championship – he secured two draws with Charlton – and will no doubt have a plan to do it again.
Birmingham’s excellent start to the campaign has been built on a strong backline as eye-catching as Tahith Chong’s loan spell from Manchester United has been. Blues have conceded just three goals in six games, with goalkeeper Matija Sarkic – brought in on loan from Wolves in the summer – keeping four clean sheets and a back three of Marc Roberts, former Brentford centre half Harlee Dean and Kristian Pedersen proving particularly miserly. The form of Ryan Woods and Ivan Sunjic in central midfield has been impressive whilst the artistry of Chong, allied to the adventure of wingbacks Maxime Collin and Jeremie Bela has provided plenty of service in the final third.
Any post-mortem of Fulham’s failings at the seaside has to begin with Silva’s disastrous decision to not trust the strength of his squad with several first-teamers reporting back from international duty before the Blackpool fixture. Both Antonee Robinson and Tim Ream appeared laboured from the outset, whilst the Whites noticeably lacked bite in midfield until Harrison Reed belatedly arrived as a substitute. The meekness of Fulham’s performance would justifiability cause the Portuguese head coach to consider who could perk things up. Nathaniel Chalobah could be a candidate for a debut if Silva decides to spilt up his central midfield partnership of Josh Onomah and Jean-Michael Seri. The return of Harry Wilson from the dizzy spells that saw him miss the trip to Blackpool should inject some energy into the final third but Fabio Carvalho’s foot problem could keep him sidelined until at least the weekend.
Fulham badly missed that pair in Blackpool when their only prolonged spell of pressure arrived once Rodrigo Muniz enlivened a toothless attack in the final ten minutes. Ivan Cavaleiro somehow stayed on the field for ninety minutes and the axing of Neeskens Kebano appeared somewhat harsh. Wilson’s availability should see the Welsh winger slot back into the right wing role from where he has prompted many of Fulham’s attacks since his arrival at Craven Cottage earlier this summer and, in the continued absence of Carvalho, it might be worth playing Bobby Decordova-Reid from behind the main striker – from where his intelligent movement could pose a problem for even the most well-drilled of defences. Domingos Quina’s debut was something of a disappointment but it would be foolish to right off a player after just 67 minutes.
Silva has so far kept faith in Paulo Gazzaniga in goal – a decision that showed scant regard for just how exceptionally Marek Rodak had demonstrated his suitability for this level during Fulham’s last promotion season, as well as ignoring the Argentine’s culpability for the goals a new-look side had conceded in the early weeks of the campaign. The former Tottenham custodian should come under more intense scrutiny after allowing Josh Bowler to score at his near post last weekend, but he seems set to continue for the moment. Gazzaniga was far from the only man responsible for the calamitous concession of that winner and, as Ream suggested on social media on Saturday, everyone needs to take responsibility in ensuring that the Tangerine triumph was merely a blip rather than a worrying sign of what’s to come.
A second victory of the season at St. Andrew’s would go some way to restoring the confidence that had been evident in Fulham’s flowing football last month – but it is far from a sure thing. The old footballing cliche of quietening the crowd might not be as appropriate given Birmingham’s continuing stadium difficulties, but Silva’s side will still need to earn the right to dictate proceedings. Both style and steel shall be required.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Odoi, Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Seri; Wilson, Kebano; Decordova-Reid; Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Bryan, Mawson, Chalobah, Onomah, Cavaleiro, Muniz.