Fulham head for Hull City tomorrow with the aim of consolidating their stranglehold on top spot in the Championship. Marco Silva’s men were far from their fluent best on an emotional night against Millwall in midweek, but paid tribute to the memory of Paul Parish with a 3-0 London derby win – and the the hallmark of champions is winning without hitting top gear. The Fulham head coach, newly minted as January’s manager of the month, insists that nothing is won yet despite his side looking ominously ruthless atop the table and he will accept no complacency as he returns to one of his former stomping grounds for the first time.
The Tigers were Silva’s first managerial job in England back in 2017 and he will receive a warm reception at the MKM Stadium as he makes his first visit since leaving the club in the wake of their relegation from the top flight. The Portuguese head coach almost pulled off a miracle on Humberside. Hull looked absolutely dead and buried at the foot of the Premier League when he was summoned from the continent to replace Mike Phelan. Silva made the pundits, particularly Paul Merson, look foolish as he almost kept the club up – knitting together a long home unbeaten run and leading the Tigers to the League Cup semi finals – and told his pre-match press conference on Thursday that he will always be grateful for the warmth of his welcome in East Yorkshire.
Once the whistle blows, there will be no room for sentiment, however. Fulham’s only defeat since the turn of the year came against English champions Manchester City, and even though they were eventually well beaten at the Etihad Stadium, there were encouraging signs as the Championship leaders showed little sign of being overawed and rewarded for taking the game to Pep Guardiola’s side with an early goal for Fabio Carvalho. Silva’s main priority is returning to the top flight at the first time of asking and the Whites came through a tough test against Millwall unscathed – with a brace from Aleksandar Mitrovic taking the Serbian striker to the ridiculous landmark of thirty goals at the end of the first week in February.
You sense Silva is a real perfectionist as his post-match assessment of Fulham’s display highlighted areas where the Whites would be able to improve upon that showing. The Portuguese boss was perturbed by his side’s second half performance, that saw them cede the initiative to the Lions, who were arguably unfortunate to lose by a 3-0 win. Other outfits might have been more ruthless in front of goal, with Marek Rodak proving his worth between the sticks with a ninth clean sheet of the season – making a couple of vital saves from Jed Wallace and Benik Afobe having come in for criticism in recent weeks.
Fulham are now unbeaten in six league fixtures and hold a six point gap at the top of the table after Bournemouth returned to winning ways against Birmingham City on Wednesday night. Silva has little need to alter a winning formula, especially with the only injury concern surrounding Kenny Tete, who is still working his way back to fill fitness having sustained a groin injury at Stoke a fortnight ago. The Dutch defender has returned to training but will miss the trip to Hull, allowing deadline day arrival Neco Williams to continue at right back. Liverpool’s failure to snap up Carvalho before the close of the window is certainly Fulham’s game – with the twinkle-toed teenager showing no signs of a hangover following the failure of the big move, having turned in another dynamic display against Millwall.
The major selection dilemma will be in the engine room where Silva suddenly seems to have abundance of riches to pick from. He has preferred Nathaniel Chalobah for Fulham’s last two games and the England international has displayed the pedigree that took him to the forefront of Gareth Southgate’s thoughts three years ago, delivering perhaps his most consistent showings since his move from Watford in September back to back against City and Millwall. Tom Cairney will be eager to impress back where it all began for him – which means that Harrison Reed and Jean Michael Silva might have to make do with starting on the substitutes’ bench again. Poor old Josh Onomah, who made an impressive start to the season, seems a long way from the starting line-up these days.
The feelgood factor following the Turkish takeover at Hull seems to have faded slightly following the successive defeats that came after Shota Arveladze’s stunning start to management in English football with a win in his first game in charge against Swansea. The Georgian striker, most well known in Britain for his goalscoring exploits at Rangers after the turn of the millennium, was the new owner’s pick to replace Grant McCann, although the man who led Hull to the League One title last year could consider himself unlucky to be dismissed following victories over promotion chasing Blackburn Rovers and Bournemouth.
Hull fans are still understandably elated at the departure of previous owner Assem Allam, whose decade in charge saw them tumble from the top flight into the second tier and a catastrophic deterioration in the relationship between the club’s hierarchy and the supporters after the eccentric Egyptian tried to push through plans to rename the club, scrapped concessionary match ticket prices and then sold a succession of first-team stars after relegation from the Premier League. They are still in danger towards the wrong end of the Championship and Arveladze will be desperate to arrest the form that saw them beaten by both a resurgent Derby and Preston North End.
He will have to do without the Chelsea loanee Nathan Baxter, whose outstanding displays in goal have been one of the highlights of the campaign to date. The 23 year-old has kept six clean sheets in twelve Championship appearances but is not well enough to return having missed the defeats by Preston and Derby. That should mean that Matt Ingram continues between the sticks and Arveladze looks likely to stick with the three-man defence he has employed since taking charge in East Yorkshire. Lewie Coyle should keep his place at right wing back having returned at Pride Park, whilst Hull’s injury worries have eased somewhat with both Callum Elder and Andy Cannon available for selection again. Regular scourge of Fulham Tom Huddlestone is pushing for inclusion in the starting line-up whilst striker Allahyar Sayyadmanesh in line for a first start.
Arveladze is realistic enough to realise that it may still take them for his new charges to adapt to his preferred possession-based style but desperately needs more goals. They managed just 26 all season – the second worst record in the division – and seem alarmingly reliant on the talented Kean Lewis-Potter for a creative spark. The winger, heavily linked with a move to the top flight throughout January, has scored six and made four more with Ryan Longman, who scored the winner at Bournemouth, having found the net three times and added four assists since his £720,000 arrival from Brighton and Hove Albion.
In a division as gloriously unpredictable as the Championship, Silva will know that nothing is guaranteed. A six-point advantage can disappear in short order, just ask Scott Parker. Fulham’s record on Humberside is patchy: they clung to a slender lead handed to them by an Ivan Cavaleiro wondergoal on their last visit in January 2020 and needed a double from Aboubakar Kamara to comeback from 2-0 down the previous December. No Fulham fan needs reminding of the 6-0 hammering under Rene Meulensteen, but even Roy Hodgson came unstuck twice here. A rare triumph in East Yorkshire, however it comes, would certainly send out another strong message about the Whites’ promotion credentials.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Williams, Bryan, Adarabioyo, Ream; Chalobah, Cairney; Wilson, Kebano, Carvalho, Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Hector, A. Robinson, Reed, Seri, Decordova-Reid, Muniz.