Fulham’s flawless recent form and a couple of favourable results from last night offer the Whites the tantalising prospect of extending their lead over the Championship’s chasing pack to eleven points tonight. Considering that West Brom were five points clear of the Cottagers very recently, that would be some margin. Standing in the way of the construction of such a commanding cushion are Derby County, who head to Craven Cottage this evening buoyed by their terrific victory over Bournemouth on Sunday.
A cursory glance at the table reveals that the Rams are rock bottom without a point to their name. But that scarcely tells the story of what Wayne Rooney has had to experience in his first managerial job. Mel Morris’ gamble on returning one of the country’s sleeping giants to English football’s top table finally caught up with Derby this summer as the club, already under investigation for breaching the EFL’s profit and sustainability rules, went into administration. The EFL announced another points deduction last week, bringing their handicap to a total of 21 points, and Rooney has had to rustle together a squad from the remnants of a side he strove to keep above water last term, bright youth prospects and experienced hands who were without a club at the start of the campaign.
By any measure, the former England captain is doing a remarkable job. His makeshift side, with three centre backs whose combined age easily passes a hundred, have lost just five games all season, which is some achievement since everyone had them as the division’s whipping boys in August. Derby have lost only three of their last twelve fixtures and they have rediscovered a scoring touch, finding the net in each of their last six matches. They were outstanding against Bournemouth, responding to both the off-field adversity and a bit of self-inflicted jeopardy when a disastrous goalkick routine gifted the Cherries a route back into the contest. Determined and dynamic, they refused to let one of the promotion contenders settle into their usual rhythm and dictate the terms of the contest – completing dominating the second half with a comeback inspired by the creativity of Tom Lawrence, who curled in a sensational equaliser before adding the winning penalty.
Lawrence has long been a proven performer at this level – with his vision, range of passing and eye for goal making him one of the Championship’s consistent players in recent years. But Derby’s resilience doesn’t just come from their gifted captain as Rooney has a midfield of skilled practitioners to choose from. Jason Knight, who headed the Rams into the lead against Bournemouth on Sunday, has come through the club’s academy to win full international honours with the Republic of Ireland and Liam Thompson looks like the latest talent off the conveyor belt after his mature league debut last weekend.
Rooney will need to rejig his side again this evening as the club’s injury crisis continues to bite. Full back Lee Buchanan will be out for between six and eight weeks after injury his knee in the dying embers of that brilliant win over Bournemouth, which means Craig Forsyth should come back in at right back. Sam Baldock also picked up a hamstring injury against the Cherries and Colin Kazim-Richards, who came off the bench on Sunday, should lead the line in SW6.
It is clear from the words of Harry Wilson, who enjoyed a stunning season on loan at Pride Park earlier in his career, and Marco Silva that Fulham won’t be taking Derby lightly tonight. The Rams have already shown how they are no respecters of reputations and the Whites have been caught cold by unfancied sides already this season – witness the defeats by Blackpool and Reading as well as the draw at Bristol City. But Fulham should head into this fixture full of confidence having dismantled Barnsley on Saturday and Silva has the luxury of strengthening his side should he wish.
You would expect Tosin Adarabioyo to return to the heart of the defence following his three-match suspension. That might be harsh on Michael Hector, who covered well in the former Manchester City man’s absence, but Adarabioyo and Ream remain Fulham’s most reliable central defensive combination and Adarabioyo’s confidence on the ball and towering physique make him an ideal fit for the way Silva wants to play. Denis Odoi is available again after his own ban, but the Belgian utility man will probably have to make do with a spot on the bench after Kenny Tete’s sumptuous cross unlocked the Barnsley back line for Aleksandar Mitrovic so efficiently.
Jean Michael Seri might have been rested against the Tykes, but he took barely a couple of minutes to remind us all of his enduring quality after coming off the bench by producing a sublime assist for Wilson. The fact that Fulham have such supreme strength in depth is one of the reasons why Silva has always been tipped to lead this side back to the Premier League at the first time of asking and it seems like Fulham’s established front three (Kebano, Wilson and Mitrovic) are striking genuine fear into Championship defences. Supplied by a midfield stacked with the creativity of Tom Cairney and Fabio Carvalho amongst others, you wouldn’t back against the Cottagers completing a century of league goals given the accent on attacking.
Derby will represent a stern test of whether Fulham can continue to pass their way around well-organised defences. They will be diligent, dogged and determined. It might require plenty of patience to wear them down – and, with the talent Rooney’s side possesses in the forward areas, they will be a threat to Marek Rodak’s goal as well. But maintaining focus by not getting carried away with recent results has been the hallmark of Silva’s side over the past month or so. Another three points would put the Whites in the perfect position before our trip to Preston on Saturday lunchtime.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Seri; Wilson, Kebano, Carvalho; Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Odoi, Hector, Bryan, Cairney, Decordova-Reid, Muniz.