Fulham face the surreal prospect of actually playing competitive football after three weeks of frustration following their lamentable loss to Sheffield United. The consternation caused by three successive postponements was evident in Marco Silva’s irritation during yesterday’s pre-match press conference where he lightly touched on the inconsistency in how the EFL’s rules regarding the impact of coronavirus cases and injuries have been applied – although some of that soreness may also be prompted by the fact that the Whites find themselves out of the automatic promotion positions after eighteen days of kicking their heels.
Silva and his charges no longer look as invincible as they did during a seven-match winning run that propelled them to the top of the Championship table. Indeed, the Londoners were in the midst of a worrying stretch of form even before Paul Heckingbottom did a number on the promotion favourites at Craven Cottage before Christmas. Four fairly forgettable draws gave a pretty clear indication that the Championship had cottoned on to the way to frustrate Fulham’s flowing football – and just how completely things had turned round is that Blackburn, thumped 7-0 in early November, have crept above the Whites into second place.
An early January weekend is traditionally a place to park the trials and tribulations of the league and concentrate on the Cup. Fulham’s record in the world’s oldest Cup competition is lamentable: you have to go back five years for the last time they reached the fifth round, when Slavisa Jokanovic’s side were easily dispatched by Spurs, and the same opposition derailed our last journey deep into the competition when Roy Hodgson’s men – already with half an eye on the Europa League – let a replay at White Hart Lane slip out of their grasp after a brilliant Bobby Zamora opener.
Silva has been candid enough to admit that, although he loved watching the Cup from Portugal with his father as a boy, his priorities are an immediate return to the Premier League and managing a mounting January fixture list. That means there should be significant rotation, something the head coach has largely resisted despite having one of the division’s strongest squads since he took over from Scott Parker. What that precisely looks like at Ashton Gate tomorrow lunchtime is anyone’s guess with Ivan Cavaleiro still some way from match sharpness and a couple of unnamed Covid cases in the camp.
There should be an opportunity for a few fringe players to stake a claim for a spot in what has remained a remarkably consistent line-up. Rodrigo Muniz would relish an opportunity to lead the line and this fixture would offer a low pressure way to measure his progress against Championship opposition. It seems ideal for Nathaniel Chalobah to slot into the Jean Michael Seri role in central midfield, perhaps with the fit again Tyrese Francois alongside him.
Bristol City have been maddeningly inconsistent since Nigel Pearson took the helm – although they did mount a stirring comeback to beat Millwall last time out and move up to fifteenth. Hat-trick hero Andreas Weimann, a regular scourge of Fulham in the past, offered potency in the penalty area and there’s a possibility that a couple of old Fulham faces could line up for the Robins. Chris Martin would probably like nothing more than knock the Whites out of the Cup given the acrimony that accompanied his 2016/17 loan spell, whilst Rob Atkinson has matured into a fine ball-playing centre back since leaving Motspur Park. He could line up alongside another blast from the past, Tomas Kalas in Pearson’s reshaped rearguard.
Just how seriously both sides will embrace the fading magic of the Cup, with their focus firmly on matters at either end of the league table, remains to be seen. Victory will serve as a shot in the arm ahead of a critical January run of fixtures – and both bosses will welcome the fact that there will be no replay.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Gazzaniga; S. Sessegnon, Bryan, Mawson, Hector; Chalobah, Francois; Decordova-Reid, Cavaleiro, Cairney; Muniz. Subs: Rodak, Odoi, Onomah, Reed, Hilton, Kebano, Mitrovic.