By now, you’ve probably all seen Lee Bowyer’s face after he learns that Fulham scored six against Bristol City to follow their seven goals at Reading. Something tells me that the Birmingham City boss might not be the best poker player. The Blues, badly mismanaged by a set of mysterious and shambolic owners, might be on a poor run of form at the moment but Bowyer and his players will head to Craven Cottage in good heart after Scott Hogan broke his scoring drought to pinch a precious point at Preston on Saturday.
Bowyer has been honest about his motivations for returning to St. Andrew’s to take on a managerial job that many would have considered one to avoid, especially with financial strife and boardroom uncertainty. He hopes to reawaken the second city’s sleeping giant – recalling that the Blues were a competitive top flight force during his playing days. The rebuilding job remains substantial, especially after being left with one fully fit striker after the departure of Chuks Aneke, but the arrival of Onel Hernandez on loan from Norwich has already added creativity in the final third.
The Cuban, who has lit up this league for the Canaries, looked bright on his debut at Deepdale and should pose problems for a Fulham defence that looked bewildered by the pace and direct running of Antoine Semenyo on Saturday. The creator of Hogan’s equaliser, an underrated figure in Ryan Woods, will likely slot back into Bowyer’s midfield and there should be a return to Craven Cottage for Neil Etheridge, who began his career tussling with Marcus Bettinelli for the goalkeeping duties in Fulham’s academy. Silva’s side comfortably beat Birmingham in their two previous meetings this season but, this being the Championship, a shock result is never too far away and Fulham will need to be on their guard.
Silva is unlikely to tinker too much with a winning formula after two emphatic victories – unless covid cases or injuries force a rethink. His focus is likely to be on mentality rather than method in the final few hours before a quick turnaround. Harry Wilson’s insistence after the win at Reading that the Whites want to win their way back to the top of the table was borne out in the way Fulham roared back from two early setbacks to take a commanding lead by half-time against the Robins, but the coaching staff will have been unnerved at just how easily Nigel Pearson’s side exploited the lack of pace in the middle of the pitch.
The key to another staggering result was the intensity of Fulham’s response, typified by Tom Cairney – embarrassed by Semenyo for the opening goal – launching into a tackle to win the ball back immediately after Bristol City’s second. Too often Fulham have been passive and their pretty football at a leisurely pace that becomes easy for a well-drilled opposition to defend against. When they take it up a notch, the Whites look irresistible in the final third, especially with Neeskens Kebano in such sublime form. There just aren’t enough superlatives to describe Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goal return – and, when Cairney is dictating play in the manner that he did on Saturday, chances seem certain to arrive.
Consistently putting together strong displays is now the key to consolidating Fulham’s position at the top of the table. It won’t be easy – on account of sides setting up to nullify Silva’s most creative players as well as a punishing schedule caused by the postponements over the festive period. Ugly wins are just as valuable as the thrashings handed out in the last few days and tell us plenty about the desire and drive of a squad. Patience may well be required tomorrow night.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Cairney; Wilson, Kebano, Carvalho, Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Hector, Odoi, Chalobah, Decordova-Reid, Stansfield, Muniz.