Four consecutive wins and comfortably consolidating second spot in the Championship means that Fulham pitch up at Ewood Park tonight in good spirits. Marco Silva’s side have responded impressively to that dismal second half surrender at Coventry before the international break, by showing glimpses of their early season flair whilst tightening up considerably at the back. Their recent revival will face a stern examination at improving Blackburn Rovers tonight, who boast an experienced manager, an impressive home record and an array of threats in their forward line.
The feelgood factor that followed Saturday lunchtime’s triumph over third-placed West Brom in the Craven Cottage sunshine has been punctured somewhat by yesterday’s news that Fabio Carvalho has rejected a ‘substantial’ contract offer from the club. The prodigiously talented teenager has admirers from across Europe as well as a clutch of Premier League clubs – and the failure to secure his long-term future since the summer hinted at this disappointing. It will be a test of Silva’s man management in how he deploys Carvalho, who clearly adds dynamism and quality to this side in the final third, for the remainder of the season.
The most pressing concern, however, ahead of tonight’s fixture is how the head coach will respond to the absence of Tosin Adarabioyo, after the defender’s needless lunch at Grady Diangana in the closing stages of the win over West Brom. He misses out on a return to Ewood Park, where he enjoyed a successful loan spell, and will be unavailable for two further matches to boot. The last time Alfie Mawson appeared in Fulham’s back four was on that awful afternoon at Coventry, whilst Michael Hector has replaced the former Swansea defender on the substitutes bench in our last two fixtures. Denis Odoi, who has filled in at right back for Kenny Tete so well in recent months, could slide across into a centre back berth – but it is probably best to leave that experiment back in 2018.
My hunch is that Hector, so commanding at the tail end of the Scott Parker promotion campaign, will get the nod alongside Tim Ream this evening. He has plenty of experience of the Championship and is most comfortable of the three in the right sided centre back slot. Hector’s only outings at club level this season have come in the League Cup and we will have to hope that his wretched start to the 2020/21 Premier League campaign, where Fulham conceded ten goals in just under four hours of football, is firmly behind him. Silva may also bring back a fit again Tete, who will provide pace and quality, at either end of the pitch to offer greater defensive solidity.
The visiting defence will need to be on their mettle because Rovers will be full of confidence themselves having won consecutive contests for the first time this season. They followed up a 2-0 win over Reading with a 2-1 win at Derby, where the in-form Ben Brereton-Diaz scored twice, to move within a whisker of the play-off places. The Chilean international, whose meteoric rise to become the toast of Santiago is one of the division’s most improbable stories, has twelve goals already this season and will be even more pivotal to the hosts’ tonight given the expected absence of Sam Gallagher.
Mowbray will also be sweating on a fitness test for Harry Pickering, who has been troubled by a calf complaint. If he fails it, Tayo Edun – who came through the Fulham academy and made seven senior appearances – should step up at left back again after his summer arrival in Lancashire from Lincoln City. Rovers will be a tough nut to crack on their home ground – they have lost just once in seven league games at Ewood Park this season – and have become more miserly at the back in recent weeks after conceding goals with an alarming regularity at the start of the campaign.
It will be interesting to see how Silva structures his side in the forward areas this evening. Both Neeskens Kebano and Harry Wilson have proved their worth as wide attacking threats in recent weeks and Bobby Decordova-Reid’s energy was demonstrably important in unsettling West Brom when Fulham were out of possession at the weekend. But there is clearly more than a sentimental case for offering Tom Cairney, who made 85 appearances in two seasons with Blackburn, a chance to return to the starting line-up this evening. He offers incisive passes, protects the ball well, and the ability to unlock a stubborn rearguard might prove invaluable. Whether he displaces a former Rovers loanee in Harrison Reed or plays in the more natural number ten position, remains to be seen.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, Robinson, Hector, Ream; Reed, Seri; Wilson, Kebano, Cairney; Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Odoi, Mawson, Onomah, Decordova-Reid, Stansfield, Muniz.