Local derbies don’t usually need hyping up. The fans can manage that all by themselves. But there’s probably a fair bit more riding on tomorrow lunchtime’s meeting with QPR for Marco Silva after Fulham’s stuttering September. The Whites were purring almost perfectly in August, with the early signs under their new boss looking particularly encouraging. But defeats by Blackpool, Reading – and right before the international break – a thrashing at Coventry, all the more galling after they had taken the lead, have all but ended the idea of the Cottagers being invincible in the Championship. The Whites will need to offer a serious response against Rangers tomorrow and their opponents are in form and full of confidence.
For the first time since they plunged out of the Premier League six years ago, things are on a fairly even keel in Shepherd’s Bush. The canny Mark Warburton, still criminally underrated at this level for my money, has been allowed the time to develop a side in his image and, crucially, this summer got the backing of the board to bring in a number of last season’s loan stars on a permanent basis. That includes Stefan Johansen, who will make his first return to Craven Cottage tomorrow, after five fabulous years of service in SW6. As befitting a Warburton side, Rangers play fine football which should make tomorrow’s clash particularly watchable and there are plenty of players to watch out for in the visiting line-up.
Lyndon Dykes, whose goals over the international break helped Scotland inch a little closer to World Cup qualification, has been something of a revelation since Warburton snapped him up from Livington for around £2m last August. Dykes has scored sixteen goals in 53 appearances for QPR and already formed a potent partnership with the experienced Charlie Austin, who returned to Rangers during the close season. If that’s not enough firepower, Andre Gray arrived from Watford on loan in the closing stages of the transfer market. The creativity on which those front men thrive is largely provided by two talented 23 year-old playmakers. Ilias Chair, the mercurial Moroccan who has seized his chance in the first team having made waves in the under 23s, has scored four times this season whilst Chris Willock, a clever capture from Arsenal, has been an ever-present in Warburton’s side this term, laying on two goals and scoring two more of his own.
Warburton’s side usually line up in an adventurous 3-4-3 system with a trio of ball-playing centre backs. Rob Dickie, the composed defender who Fulham watched regularly whilst he was with Oxford United, has made headlines for his own goalscoring exploits this term and typifies the way Rangers look to attack from the back. When we did our pre-season preview, I felt that the R’s had completed a summer of sensible transfer business and looked well-placed to push for promotion – and the first couple of months of the season have only strengthened that view. Rangers will give Silva’s side a thorough examination tomorrow.
Silva himself has a few questions to answer as he approaches his first local derby in charge. Fulham have been well below their fluent best for some time now. They might be mitigating circumstances – with international breaks disrupting the rhythm a new-look side had built up early in the season and the absence of key players through injury suspension, but with the wealth of talent that Fulham have at their disposal, those excuses can’t be tolerated for long. The composition of the central midfield trio has looked clunky for a few weeks with the Whites badly missing teenage sensation Fabio Carvalho as the classy number ten who gives opposing defences something other than Aleksandar Mitrovic to consider. The manager’s faith in Paulo Gazzaniga appears misplaced, too, with the Argentine looking woefully low on confidence in the damaging defeat at Coventry.
Today’s news that captain Tom Cairney is finally fit enough to return to the first team squad, having been absent since the draw with Newcastle last December, at least hints at the prospect of a bit of guile and creativity in a team that has been rather workmanlike without Carvalho in recent weeks. Teams have cottoned on to the fact that Harry Wilson is much easier to nullify by placing a second man in his general vicinity when the Welsh winger is stationed on the right – it hinders his ability to drift dangerously inside on his favoured left foot – and that some steel in the tackle can throw Fulham completely off their game. Fulham can’t afford to be a soft touch for much longer: the Whites are already playing catch up and a defeat when the bragging rights are at stake would prompt serious questions about Silva’s suitability for steering the side back to the top flight at the first time of asking, which was the reason why Shahid Khan hired him.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Adarabioyo, Ream; Seri, Reed; Wilson, Kebano, Cairney; Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Mawson, Robinson, Onomah, Chalobah, Decordova-Reid, Muniz.