Full of confidence after a surreal goal glut, Fulham will face a stern test of their promotion credentials at Stoke City this weekend. It might seem strange to suggest this following a 3-0 defeat, but there’s a good case to be made that Michael O’Neill’s men have been the best team to visit Craven Cottage this season. Consistently playing the progressive football that the Northern Irish boss prefers has been a problem for the Potters, but with a sprinkling of new signings, last Sunday’s win at Hull City married style with steel and hinted that Marco Silva’s prediction that they could be among the promotion contenders shouldn’t be too wide of the mark.
O’Neill was actually missing on Humberside after a positive Covid test but his stamp on the Stoke side was easily identifiable. Two new faces in the back three in veteran Phil Jagielka, pinched from Derby after his short term deal at Pride Park expired, and promising Manchester City youngster Taylor Harwood-Bellis enjoyed encouraging debuts and when you consider that Ben Wilmot will return from isolation then City have some serious defensive depth. They looked much more threatening than in recent weeks with D’Margio Wright-Phillips, outstanding in an FA Cup cameo, shining on his first start and the recalled Tom Ince reprising the form that made him such a breakout star.
Stoke looked comfortable in possession, popping the ball around with aplomb during some lovely one-touch stuff that saw Sam Clucas, a quality player at this level, and the underrated old hand Joe Allen featuring heavily. If they can marry that dominance of the ball with continued diligence at the back – Stoke have not conceded more than two goals in their last eleven games – then O’Neill’s side might emerge as a leading figure from the Championship’s chasing pack. Silva certainly feels Saturday’s opponents are in the shake up to go up and is preparing his players for a difficult assignment.
If O’Neill’s team selection last weekend, which included five debuts, raised eyebrows there will be a temptation to stick with the winning formula against the league leaders. City have made a series of shrewd acquisitions this month, with technically gifted midfielder Lewis Baker finally ending his sixteen-year spell at Chelsea by signing a two-year deal last week and the loan addition of Aston Villa’s exciting winger Jaden Philogene-Bidace, who scored eight goals in six games for Villa’s under 23s before being promoted to the senior squad, completed this afternoon. Fulham will need to watch the forward runs of left wing back Josh Tymon, who scored a sensational team goal earlier this season and is another player fulfilling his undoubted promise.
The visitors’ major problems will concern replicating the levels of performance shown in their astonishing victories over the past ten days, even if Silva had some quibbles with the second half display against Birmingham, during a demanding January schedule. The head coach was able to rest a couple of key players towards the tail end of Tuesday night’s victory – but he has already signalled that his side’s sensational scoring streak is probably an anomaly that won’t continue. That doesn’t mean to say the Whites won’t be adventurous again in Staffordshire on Saturday, but a tighter affair is almost a certainty.
Aleksandar Mitrovic didn’t trouble the scorers against Birmingham but still produced an accomplished display that highlighted the playmaking qualities his phenomenal goals record has often obscured. The Serbian’s all-round contributions for club and country during his campaign have been exceptional, with Silva’s use of the 27 year-old as the fulcrum of a fearsome forward line only underlining his inexplicable sidelining by Scott Parker. Either side of Mitrovic, Harry Wilson – who now leads the Championship assist charts with ten – and Neeskens Kebano are reliable providers of regular service whilst Fabio Carvalho has rediscovered the form that saw him sparkle at the start of the season. The return of the peerless Tom Cairney to pull the strings from a deeper role has only strengthened Fulham’s dominance of the ball.
Silva has so far resisted any real rotation despite a frenetic run of fixtures. He won’t want to disrupt Fulham’s fluency tomorrow, with Kenny Tete perhaps the only likely change at right back. Fulham haven’t won at Stoke since Chris Baird’s brilliant brace saved Mark Hughes’ bacon in December 2010: victory here would cement their status as favourites for an immediate return to the top flight.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Cairney, Wilson, Kebano, Carvalho; Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Odoi, Mawson, Chalobah, Onomah, Decordova-Reid, Muniz.