After three wins in a week, Fulham face arguably the sternest test of their promotion credentials so far this season when West Bromwich Albion visit Craven Cottage in another Saturday lunchtime showdown in front of the Sky cameras. Albion, direct and energetic under Valerian Ismael, sit just behind Marco Silva’s side in third place in the Championship table and rebuffed any suggestion of a slump following their surprise defeat by Swansea with a comfortable victory over Bristol City last weekend. Ismael, who spearheaded Barnsley’s remarkable rise from relegation candidates to play-off contenders, is a shrewd manager who will have his side primed to exploit any fragility in the Fulham ranks.
He will want to prove a point after two successive away reverses and has urged his charges to ’embrace the challenge’ of taking on their fellow promotion contenders in their own back yard. He can rely on the predatory instincts of Karlan Grant, with the former Huddersfield forward having scored six times in his last six league appearances, whilst Jordan Hugill ended his scoring drought last weekend. In the continued absence of Alex Mowatt, Ismael will be able to count the experience of England international Jake Livermore, who will return from suspension to anchor the midfield, although who the former Spurs midfielder replaces remains up for debate. Jayson Molumby impressed against the Robins, whilst Ismael has recently lauded the veteran Robert Snodgrass for giving the side more control of the engine room.
The Baggies’ early season success has been built around a miserly back three. Semi Ajayi, a scorer at the Cottage in this fixture in the past, and Kyle Bartley have been joined this season by Matt Clarke, a canny loan acquisition from Brighton and Hove Albion this summer, who is comfortable in possession. Albion have conceded just eleven goals so far this term – the joint second best defensive record in the division – and will, of course, pose a substantial threat from corners and long throw-ins as well as pressing Fulham high from the outset.
Fulham’s fortunes have picked up since the international break after that supine surrender in the rain at Coventry. Silva’s side comfortably dispatched QPR in the end after coming through a sticky patch after half-time in the local derby. They were indebted to the returning Tom Cairney for providing some impetus and quality in the final third to leave Mick McCarthy on borrowed time with Cardiff and, as churlish as it sounds, weren’t perhaps as convincing at Nottingham Forest as the 4-0 scoreline suggested. Silva was happy that his side were ruthless at the City Ground – but the Whites surely won’t have it as easy this weekend.
The feelgood factor around the camp will only have been enhanced by the news that Fabio Carvalho, out since August, is available for selection again after being sidelined first by a toe problem and then coronavirus. That creates a selection dilemma in itself straight away. Cairney crawled through the final stages of a game that had been settled up at Forest, which was understandable after having not completed ninety minutes in almost a year, but Fulham have not looked anywhere near as fluent without Carvalho as their number ten. Could the teenager come straight in having missed nine games? You also have to wonder whether this sort of physical tussle is tailor made for the tigerish Harrison Reed, who only made the bench at the City Ground.
Denis Odoi had a crucial role in the win up at Forest: first, with his sublime screening creating another set piece goal, and then winning the penalty that Aleksandar Mitrovic converted to make sure of all three points. The Belgian might just have proven Silva, who suggested he wasn’t the right ‘profile’ to feature at right back, wrong with a series of whole-hearted displays in deputising for Kenny Tete so it seems rather perverse to suggest demoting him to the bench again. But a fully fit Tete adds undeniable quality at both ends of the field and the Dutch defender has to start against one of the Championship’s most well-drilled outfits.
Three points would be a massive prize to take into November’s programme but this is likely to be a tight and tetchy encounter. Fulham will have to counter a very different challenge to ones they have faced so far this season – and it may take plenty of patience and, perhaps, a moment of magic to break down one of the division’s most miserly defences.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, Bryan, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Seri; Wilson, Kebano, Cairney; Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Mawson, Robinson, Onomah, Carvalho, Decordova-Reid, Muniz.