Fulham might have allayed fears that their awesome August was a false dawn following the shock defeat at newly-promoted Blackpool by battering Birmingham, but that victory owed more to clinical conversion in the final third than the utter dominance that had characterised the Whites’ early season wins. Marco Silva seemed content that the St. Andrew’s success served as a satisfactory response to the dismal display at Bloomfield Road, but key Fulham figures have been quick to assert that the midweek victory means little if it is not followed up with another tomorrow.
Stringing together early wins will construct the kind of commanding position towards the top of the table that has eluded Fulham since they dropped back into second tier in 2014. Previous Fulham sides have been left scrambling for the play-off places on account of slow starts and any suggestion that the below par Blackpool performance was a precursor of a similar malaise needed to be stamped down on hard. The fact that Silva’s side showed stomach for the battle on Wednesday – with Birmingham more than matching their visitors in what, despite the scoreline, proved to be a pretty even first half – was almost as encouraging as the final result.
Silva’s tactical and personnel changes leave the head coach with a few headaches ahead of their return to Craven Cottage this weekend. Joe Bryan delivered the kind of composed and disciplined display that we have come to expect from someone with significant Championship experience – managing to keep Tahith Chong relatively quiet – and may now make it difficult to Antonee Robinson to come back into the side. Injuries necessitated both a change in shape and faces in central midfield, with Nathaniel Chalobah knitting together an impressive debut. As worrying as Harrison Reed’s leg problem sounds, the immediate return of Josh Onomah would allow Chalobah and Jean-Michael Seri to be joined by someone who has ample experience now of operating in a Silva midfield – and will stiffen up the central area in the continued absence of Fabio Carvalho.
The responsibility for creativity and verve in the final third will rest largely on Harry Wilson without the teenager as a precocious foil for Aleksandar Mitrovic. The Welsh winger showed an ample appetite for the task at Birmingham and could easily have bagged a hat-trick before coolly converting a gorgeous Chalobah pass to put the visitors out of sight. Wilson himself remarked today that his only frustration with his fine start at Fulham has not being able to put together a consistent run of starts and there is no arguing that he looks devastating in this division.
It is difficult to know quite what to make of Veljko Paunovic’s side after Reading’s rather indifferent start to the season. The Royals have been ravaged by injuries and could be missing as many as ten first-team players for the trip to south west London tomorrow. The Serbian will have a decision to make in goal as Rafael Cabral’s hand injury appears not to be as serious as initially thought, although replacing Luke Southwood would be incredibly harsh after the academy graduate deputised very capably in the 3-1 win over Peterborough at the weekend. That success sees the Royals heading for Craven Cottage in good spirits after just one win in six games, with loanee Tom Dele-Bashiru proving particularly devastating.
Fulham will know that they will need to keep a close eye on former Chelsea midfielder John Swift, whose stunning free-kick set Reading on their way to a first win in five fixtures on Saturday. The 26 year-old has been one of the Championship’s most effective creators in the last few seasons as Reading have rather laboured under the radar and he has already scored seven times in seven appearances this season, adding three assists for good measure. Swift scored when Mark Bowen’s men saw in the New Year with a stunning win at the Cottage last year – and will be crucial to Reading’s hopes of a repeat.
This could be a much stiffer test than the pundits have predicted. Reading have scored thirteen league goals already this term – only Fulham and QPR have managed more – and will be more confident that before their recent dismal run, with a desire to end a nine-game winless streak on their travels. Blackpool have proven that Fulham can’t take anyone for granted, however impressive their first month under Silva has appeared, and the Whites will need to show the same battling qualities they displayed at Birmingham from the first whistle.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Gazzaniga; Odoi, Bryan, Adarabioyo, Ream; Seri, Chalobah, Onomah; Wilson, Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs: Rodak, Mawson, Robinson, Quina, Kebano, Cavaleiro, Muniz.