Fulham’s first league fixture since before Christmas is a tantalising one. On paper, it looks like a very good time to play Reading. Dumped out of the FA Cup at Kidderminster amidst rancour amongst the fan base, the Royals haven’t won in four matches and Veljko Paunovic is under serious pressure. The Serbian has to juggle an injury crisis and coronavirus complications with a couple of key players representing Ghana at the Africa Cup of Nations. But Reading were on a similarly dismal run when they turned up to Craven Cottage with a makeshift defence in September to inflict a first home defeat on Marco Silva’s side – so who knows what will happen in Berkshire this evening?
Paunovic will likely rely on a core of old stagers to drag his side away from their precarious position just above the relegation zone – should he get the opportunity to continue (there were strong suggestions that his services would be dispensed with following a shambolic showing at Aggborough). Danny Drinkwater has already displayed his battling characteristics against the Whites this season, coming off the bench to shore up the Royal rearguard as they held on for an unlikely victory, whilst Scott Dann is the sort of uncompromising defender who is always primed for battle. Andy Carroll came in on a short-term deal before Christmas and quickly demonstrated that he still knows where the goal is. The biggest disappointment has to be that the prodigiously talented Alen Halilovic can’t seem to stay fit.
Perhaps the biggest positive for the home side is that it is difficult to judge what sort of Fulham they will come up against this evening. Silva’s side were scratchy at Ashton Gate in the FA Cup on Saturday, understandable when you consider that they hadn’t played in just under three weeks, and only began to dominate when a number of rested first-teamers were introduced as substitutes. The swashbuckling early season football had given way to a more haunted, hesitated air in the weeks prior to the postponements and there is more than a suspicion that Championship sides have now cracked the code and come up with a way to nullify Fulham’s main way of playing. No wins in five league games is relegation rather than promotion form – which is why Harry Wilson’s Westcountry fluke was so important.
Silva’s pre-match press conference yesterday majored on the importance of getting back to the nitty gritty of league action but the precise composition of his starting eleven is difficult to land upon. Ivan Cavaleiro is definitely out and the head coach referred to a couple of other players still dealing with the after-effects of coronavirus. Personnel will be pivotal, as always, but there will be a need to start at a high tempo and move the ball quicker than during Fulham’s previous outing. It is noticeable that Silva has been seething on the touchline at his side’s lack of intensity of late: no surprise when you consider the passivity of recent performances.
Seeing Wilson on the scoresheet again after a barren period will also give the Welshman a real lift – regardless of how the ball hit the net. He was almost talimsanic in the early part of the season and has a habit of drifting out of matches if the passes don’t follow those clever runs inside. Aleksandar Mitrovic remains the major goal threat, but talk that Reading could switch to the sort of 3-4-1-2 system that has flummoxed Fulham since November could both cut off the Serbian’s service and pose problems at the other end of the pitch.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Cairney; Wilson, Carvalho, Kebano; Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Hector, Odoi, Chalobah, Francois, Decordova-Reid, Muniz.