Fulham head for Nottingham this weekend full of confidence after two convincing victories injected some much needed momentum into their promotion push. Both wins over QPR and Cardiff City had their jittery moments but the fact that the Whites were able to come through a couple of sticky periods and put stubborn opposition to the sword said something about their strength of character after the catastrophic collapse at Coventry prior to the international break – and a rare West Brom defeat even ensured that Marco Silva’s men moved into the top two for good measure.
Any suggestion that a third consecutive win is a mere formality should have been dispelled by the crazy nature of this Championship season. If it hasn’t, then Forest’s form under Steve Cooper demonstrates that they will serve as a strong test of Fulham’s tenacity. Chris Hughton paid for a dire start and an unambitious approach as he left the City Ground having picked up a single point from his first seven league games. Cooper, a vastly underrated coach at this level who might have pitched up at Craven Cottage this summer had things gone a little differently, has had an immediate impact at one of English football’s sleeping giants.
The man who led Swansea to two successive play-offs is undefeated in five games in charge by the Trent, winning four. The latest victory – which saw Forest stun Bristol City by coming from behind through a Lyle Taylor double in the space of fifty seconds in added time – attested to just how successfully Cooper has restored a sense of belief into his squad. Always an innovator in his impressive coaching career, Cooper’s switch to a back three has worked a treat, with Joe Worrall, Tobias Figueiredo and Scott McKenna really gelling at the heart of what had previously been a porous defence, and former Fulham academy man Djed Spence injecting some real energy at right wing back.
There are plenty of threats throughout the Forest ranks. Lewis Grabban has been a regular goalscorer at this level for years and seems to be finally clicking into gear at the City Ground, whilst Brennan Johnson’s talent is beginning to flourish for both club and country. Cooper could be tempted to make a couple of alterations tomorrow afternoon with Joe Lolley likely to replace Philip Zinckernagel after making a real impact off the bench at Ashton Gate in midweek. The Reds have plenty of midfield talent to pick from with Manchester United loanee James Garner a cultured operator in the engine room and homegrown Ryan Yates also blossoming in the heart of midfield.
Fulham will therefore face a side full of confidence and eager to add another scalp to their impressive winning run, which has catapulted the early-season strugglers up to fourteenth in the table. Silva’s side took a while to break down Cardiff City, who were spirited if limited, and had to rely on the returning Tom Cairney to supply an emotional breakthrough twelve minutes after he stepped off the bench. Cairney said in the aftermath of that dramatic intervention that it is probably too early for him to start matches, but the Fulham skipper will be keen to feature at the City Ground, having been born in Nottingham to a fanatical Forest supporting father.
Without Fabio Carvalho, Cairney definitely provides something that Fulham have lacked since the early weeks of the season. He helps a team so committed to possession keep the ball more comfortably, but on Wednesday night at least injected a sense of purpose and energy that had been missing in the first half. He’ll no doubt be a pivotal piece of the puzzle for Fulham going forward, but it isn’t worth risking his astonishingly swift recovery this early. Silva left us in no doubt that he had been disappointed with Domingos Quina’s early performances – and, if the Portuguese playmaker was signed as a possible Cairney replacement, he has yet to fulfil that brief.
There’s still a sense that Fulham’s midfield is a bit of a work in progress. Jean Michael Seri has orchestrated things wonderfully from a deep-lying role that nobody imagined he would be filling, but Harrison Reed’s transformation to a busy, box-to-box midfielder at Silva’s urging still strikes me as a radical reskilling of the club’s only proven defensively-minded midfielder. Reed came close to grabbing a first goal for the club with a couple of goes from long range against Cardiff but this uber-adventurous Fulham side does look a little shorthanded when the oppositions breaks our initial press, which is where Reed’s excellent reading of the game would typically come in handy.
Silva has a few injury concerns to consider before he settles on his starting eleven for Sunday, but it would come as a big surprise were there major changes to a winning formula. Marek Rodak has appeared much more convincing since replacing Paulo Gazzaniga in goal, whilst the only other question will be when Kenny Tete is fit enough to reclaim the right back spot from Denis Odoi. This won’t be an easy encounter – but it is another opportunity for Fulham to send out a statement about the seriousness of their promotion credentials.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, Bryan, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Seri; Decordova-Reid, Kebano, Wilson; Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Odoi, Mawson, Onomah, Cairney, Muniz, Stansfield.