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For about seventy minutes, what we watched at Ashton Gate felt like one of those well-meaning testimonials or the very first summer pre-season friendly. Played at half pace in front of precious few spectators, these games are the ones that we furiously scrutinise for clues of how the next campaign could pan out. That FA Cup third round weekend, traditionally one of the highlights of the British sporting calendar, can now be compared to a practice match shows both how far the competition has fallen and the impact of the last few weeks of cancellations on Fulham’s season.

Players need certainty, structure and rhythm. When Marco Silva’s side were putting people to the sword left, right and centre in November, it looked feasible that the Whites might stretch away at the top of the Championship. Fast forward a couple of months – and the arrival of the omicron variant – and those words feel foolish. Silva has spoken before about the need to retain a hefty squad because of the stringent demands of the Championship schedule: those words look particularly prescient now, with a fourth postponement in the offing after Middlesbrough also progressed past the third round yesterday.

Silva went for a mix and match approach in the Westcountry with the rescheduled trip to Reading also on his mind. Some of his understudies acquitted themselves well. Paulo Gazzaniga was probably Fulham’s man of the match, producing a series of excellent saves to keep the visitors in the contest, and Denis Odoi delivered dependably at right back once again. Others were less impressive. We were reacquainted with Tyrese Francois in central midfield after the Australian’s cameo at the start of the campaign was ended by a calf complaint but the young tyro struggled to impose himself on proceedings, surrendering the ball far too readily in dangerous positions earlier on.

Fabio Carvalho blew hot and cold as well, not helped by an early yellow card he had to take for crudely chopping down Han-Noah Massengo on the edge of the area after a horrific pass from Michael Hector. Fulham were on the back foot for most of the first half, although Carvalho’s quick feet did provide some of their brightest moments – including a cross that might have produced an opening goal had Rodrigo Muniz timed his jump better at the back post. One of the reasons why the away side struggled for cohesion came from a lack of authority in central midfield. Nathaniel Chalobah flashed a shot wide of goal from long range and made a great chance for Bobby Decordova-Reid, but disappointed when it came to his primary role – protecting the back four.

There were flashes from Domingos Quina, handed a surprise start when all the signs seemed to point to an early return to Watford, but he made bafflingly poor decisions in the final third, which is something of a drawback for an attacking midfielder. Rodrigo Muniz remains a work in progress with a penchant for the speculator: one of those overhead kicks will go in eventually, won’t they? Many of these players would be perfectly serviceable as a like-for-like replacement, but with nine alterations from the Sheffield United defeat before Christmas, there was always likely to be a levelling off.

It was noticeable that Fulham began to find some fluency when the cavalry came off the bench. They might not have immediately appreciated an extra thirty minutes, but a bit more match sharpness in the legs could come in handy against the Royals. The way in which Fulham fought to their first ever cup victory over Bristol City was encouraging and, having been second best for the first seventy minutes or so, the margin should have been much greater than Harry Wilson’s extra time fluke. Aleksandar Mitrovic spurned a pair of presentable chances, the second of which immediately followed Neeskens Kebano’s failure to finish a one-on-one, and Tom Cairney was thwarted by a special Max O’Leary save.

An end to the worrying winless run from last year will have done wonders for morale at Motspur Park after what has been a difficult few weeks. The games come thick and fast now and Fulham will be all the better for this strenuous workout.